Supreme Court upholds refugee ban, but says grandparents can enter U.S.

Last Updated Jul 19, 2017 4:17 PM EDT

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court says the Trump administration can strictly enforce its ban on refugees, but is leaving in place a weakened travel ban that includes grandparents among relatives who can help visitors from six mostly Muslim countries get into the U.S.

The justices acted Wednesday on the administration's appeal of a federal judge's ruling last week. U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson ordered the government to allow in refugees formally working with a resettlement agency in the United States. Watson also vastly expanded the family relations that refugees and visitors can use to get into the country.

The high court blocked Watson's order as it applies to refugees for now, but not the expanded list of relatives. The justices said the federal appeals court in San Francisco should now consider the appeal. It's not clear how quickly that will happen.

In the meantime, though, up to 24,000 refugees who already have been assigned to a charity or religious organization in the U.S. will not be able to use that connection to get into the country.

"This ruling jeopardizes the safety of thousands of people across the world including vulnerable families fleeing war and violence," said Naureen Shah, Amnesty International USA's senior director of campaigns.

That part of the court's ruling was a victory for President Trump, who rolled out a first ban on travelers and refugees after just a week in office, prompting a legal fight that has raged ever since.

But the Supreme Court also denied the administration's request to clarify its ruling last month that allowed the administration to partially reinstate a 90-day ban on visitors from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen and a 120-day ban on refugees from anywhere in the world.

The court's ruling exempted a large swath of refugees and travelers with a "bona fide relationship" with a person or an entity in the U.S. The justices did not define those relationships but said they could include a close relative, a job offer or admission to a college or university.

Watson's order added grandparents, grandchildren, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins to a list that already included a parent, spouse, fiance, son, daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law or sibling already in the U.S. The expanded list of relatives remains in effect. 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has sent a cable to all U.S. consular and diplomatic posts saying people from the six banned countries who are grandparents and grandchildren of people living in the U.S. are now eligible for a visa. 

Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin said the court's order Wednesday "confirms we were right to say that the Trump administration over-reached in trying to unilaterally keep families apart from each other." 

Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas would have blocked Watson's order in its entirety. Those same three justices said last month they would have allowed the Trump travel ban to take full effect. 

The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in the travel ban case on October 10, though the 90-day pause will have expired by then.