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U.S. accused of refusing detainee list as travel cases mount

Protesters against President Trump’s temporary travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations stand in front of the Bradley Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Reed Saxon / Associated Press)
Protesters against President Trump’s temporary travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations stand in front of the Bradley Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Reed Saxon / Associated Press)
By Erik Larson and Patricia Hurtado Bloomberg

The U.S. government is refusing to comply with a court order to identify people who were stopped at airports under President Donald Trump’s ban on travel from seven countries, lawyers said in one of many lawsuits nationwide to attack his sweeping immigration directive.

A judge in the New York borough of Brooklyn ordered the Justice Department on Jan. 28 – a day after Trump’s ban abruptly took effect – to provide the American Civil Liberties Union with a list of individuals detained while trying to enter the U.S. after the executive order led to travel chaos across the country. A week and a half later, that government hasn’t provided the list.

“The government has failed to identify even one individual held in its custody under the policy,” Katherine Haas, of Yale Law School’s worker rights legal clinic, which is also representing plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement.

The fight comes as an appellate panel in San Francisco considers whether to put on hold a ruling temporarily blocking the ban by a Seattle judge in another case. Either case – or similar suits in Massachusetts, Maryland and elsewhere – may ultimately emerge as the policy-setter in the high-stakes battle over the extent of President Trump’s authority.

In Massachusetts on Wednesday, the cities of Chelsea and Lawrence sued Trump over his threat to cut federal funds to so-called sanctuary cities, which have laws limiting cooperation by local authorities with federal immigration enforcement. On Jan. 25, Trump issued an executive order to punish such cities and expand the number of immigrants who can be deported, triggering earlier suits by San Francisco and Santa Clara County, California.

“The executive order seeks, without congressional authorization, to commandeer local officials to enforce the federal government’s immigration policies, and threatens municipalities with crippling losses of funding” if the municipalities “do not come to heel,” the cities said in the complaint.

Two days later, on Jan. 27 as part of this travel ban Trump indefinitely barred Syrian refugees and placed a 120-day halt to all other refugee resettlement. His order also blocked entry for 90 days of nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

Trump has said the move will prevent potential terrorists from slipping into the country, while critics say it illegally discriminates against Muslims.

The Justice Department argues in the Brooklyn case that it isn’t required to produce a list because travelers are no longer being detained. The plaintiffs contend the order applies to people who were held and then released, and that the government is quibbling over the meaning of the word “detained.”

“The government has chosen to avoid compliance by creating meaningless limitations on the word ‘detained’ in the court’s order,” Haas said.

“If you are aware of any individuals being unlawfully detained, please let us know and we will find out what’s going on,” Steven Platt, a Justice Department lawyer who is working on the case, said in a Jan. 31 email to the plaintiffs. It was filed with the Brooklyn court on Tuesday.

The Justice Department’s press office didn’t immediately return a voice mail or email seeking comment about the request.

The plaintiffs groups also asked U.S. District Judge Carol Amon, who is overseeing the Brooklyn case, to order the Justice Department to name anyone who was removed from the U.S. due to Trump’s order, arguing they never should have been sent away in the first place.

Among travelers who were wrongfully barred from the U.S. is a student from Austria of Iranian citizenship who is pursuing her master’s degree, the Yale group said in court filings. She was detained for almost 23 hours before being removed from the U.S. after Donnelly issued her order, the group said.

The plaintiffs also said a woman from Sudan who was coming to the U.S. to care for her pregnant sister’s special-needs child was detained for more than 10 hours before she was sent home.

Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said that if the California appeals court rules in favor of the administration in the Seattle case, an earlier ruling in the Brooklyn court will still give travelers some protection if they are already en route to the U.S. Either way, the Brooklyn case will go forward, he said.

“The list is absolutely critical because all we’re getting from the government is that no one was removed and no one is being held against their will,” Gelernt said. “People were removed against their will and didn’t understand their rights and were coerced into waiving their rights.”

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