A federal judge on Friday put a nationwide block on U.S. President Donald Trump's week-old executive order temporarily barring refugees and nationals from seven countries from entering the United States.
The Seattle judge's temporary restraining order represents a major setback for Trump's action, although his administration could still have the policy put back into effect with an appeal.
The White House said late on Friday it believed the ban to be "lawful and appropriate" and said the U.S. Department of Justice would file an emergency motion to stop the judge's order taking effect.
Judge James Robart, a George W. Bush appointee, made his ruling effective immediately on Friday, suggesting that travel restrictions could be lifted straight away.
Shortly after the ruling, U.S. Customs and Border Protection told airlines to board travellers affected by the ban. The U.S. State Department is working with the Department of Homeland Security to work out how Friday's ruling affects its operations, a spokesman told Reuters, and will announce any changes affecting travellers as soon as information is available.
Robart's ruling followed an earlier decision by a federal judge in Boston declining to extend a temporary restraining order allowing some immigrants into the United States from countries affected by Trump's three-month ban.
The Seattle judge's ruling takes effect because it considered the broad constitutionality of Trump's order. Robart also explicitly made his ruling apply across the country, while other judges facing similar cases have so far issued orders concerning only specific individuals.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee celebrated the decision as a victory for the state, adding: "no person - not even the president - is above the law."
The state's attorney general, Bob Ferguson, said: "This decision shuts down the executive order right now." He said he expected the federal government to honour the ruling.
The challenge in Seattle court was brought by the state of Washington and later joined by the state of Minnesota. The judge ruled that the states have legal standing to sue, which could help Democratic attorneys general take on Trump in court on issues beyond immigration.
Washington's case was based on claims that the state had suffered harm from the travel ban, for example students and faculty at state-funded universities being stranded overseas.
Trump's Jan. 27 order caused chaos at airports across the United States last week as some citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen were denied entry.
Judge Robart probed a Justice Department lawyer on the "litany of harms" suffered by Washington state's universities, and also questioned the administration's use of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States as a justification for the ban.
Robart said no attacks had been carried out on U.S. soil by individuals from the seven countries affected by the travel ban since that assault. For Trump's order to be constitutional, Robart said, it had to be "based in fact, as opposed to fiction."
The judge's decision was welcomed by groups protesting the ban.
"This order demonstrates that federal judges throughout the country are seeing the serious constitutional problems with this order," said Nicholas Espiritu, a staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center.
Eric Ferrero, Amnesty International USA spokesman, lauded the short-term relief provided by the order but added: "Congress must step in and block this unlawful ban for good."
FOUR STATES IN COURT
The decision came on a day that attorneys from four states were in courts challenging Trump's executive order. The Trump administration justified the action on national security grounds, but opponents labelled it an unconstitutional order targeting people based on religious beliefs.
In Boston, U.S. District Judge Nathan Gorton expressed scepticism during oral arguments about a civil rights group's claim that Trump's order represented religious discrimination, before declining to extend the restraining order.
The State Department said on Friday that fewer than 60,000 visas previously issued to citizens of the seven affected countries had been invalidated as a result of the order. That disclosure followed media reports that government lawyers were citing a figure of 100,000.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria, Virginia ordered the federal government to give the state a list by Thursday of "all persons who have been denied entry to or removed from the United States."
The state of Hawaii on Friday also filed a lawsuit alleging that the order is unconstitutional and asking the court to block the order across the country.
Trump's directive also temporarily stopped the entry of all refugees into the country and indefinitely halted the settlement of Syrian refugees.