AG files complaint seeking to strike trump immigration, refugee order

[Video | Photos: Antonio Caban/SHNS]

BOSTON, Mass. (STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE) – Calling President Donald Trump’s temporary immigration restrictions “unconstitutional,” Attorney General Maura Healey moved on Tuesday to add Massachusetts and the University of Massachusetts to a federal lawsuit seeking to strike down the executive order on the grounds that it violates residents’ rights to religious freedom and due process.

Healey said the expanded complaint will argue that Trump’s temporary halt to accepting refugees and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries unlawfully interferes with “our economic lifeblood” and violates the constitution by giving preference to refugees with minority religious views, including Christians, from Muslim countries.

The legal action follows a weekend in which at least a handful of legal residents, including two UMass Dartmouth engineering professors of Iranian descent, were detained at Logan International Airport as they tried to return to their homes in Massachusetts.

Those professors filed suit in Boston federal court with the help of immigration attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union. Healey’s expanded complaint and motion to intervene in that case came as the ACLU was also planning to expand its list of plaintiffs on Tuesday, including the addition of Oxfam America.

The lawsuit asks the federal court to first extend the seven-day stay granted over the weekend blocking deportation or detention of immigrants with legal status to visit the U.S. from entering the country, and then to strike down the order entirely.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, offered his support for Healey’s action on Tuesday, as did House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, and members of the Congressional delegation and state business community.

White House officials defended the executive order Tuesday as a necessary step to protect American lives, and argued that the details of the order have been unfairly spun by critics into something it is not.

“This is not, I repeat, not a ban on Muslims,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said. “The Homeland Security mission is to safeguard the American people, our homeland, our values and religious liberty is one of our most fundamental and treasured values.”

Healey announced the lawsuit in a press conference in her office surrounded by leaders from UMass, the business and hospital communities, non-profits and advocacy leaders who spoke about how the president’s action could negatively impact the state.

The officials, including leaders of the ACLU and the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, said the order could chill immigration from countries that provide the talent that drives the state’s technology, medicine, research and academic endeavors.

“During his campaign, President Trump called for a quote complete shut-down of Muslims entering the United States. On Friday, he acted to make good on that promise….,” Healey said during a press conference in her office. “The executive order is harmful, discriminatory and unconstitutional.”

Recalling how twin girls from Somalia told her Monday during a school visit in Boston that they were “afraid of the president and what is happening in our country,” Healey said she had a message for them and others feeling the same way: “I want them to know that Massachusetts will have their back.”

Not strictly a Muslim ban, Trump’s order blocked all refugees from coming to the United States for 120 days and indefinitely suspended access to refugees from Syria. The order also prevents people from seven majority-Muslim countries – Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya – from entering the country for 90 days.

“This is not a travel ban, this is a temporary pause that allows us to better review the existing refugee and visa vetting system,” Kelly said.

Kelly said federal officials plan to implement Trump’s order “professionally, humanely and in accordance with the law,” and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said that 500,000 foreign nationals traveled into United States through airports in the 72 hours after the order was signed, and 721 were denied boarding. In that time, he said 1,060 waivers were processed for lawful permanent residents and 75 waivers for immigrant visas and non-immigrant visa holders.

Moving forward, McAleenan said, lawful permanent residents and special immigrant visa holders will be allowed to board flights to the United States and will be processed for waivers upon arrival. Another 872 refugees who were ready to travel at the time the order was signed and would face “undue hardship” by being denied are also expected to arrive this week and be processed for waivers.

The White House said the temporary halt to immigration was imposed as national security measure to tighten the vetting process for immigrants from countries where terrorism has taken hold.

“These orders will secure our borders, enhance the enforcement of our immigration laws and keep our citizens safe by keeping foreign terrorists out of our country,” Kelly said.

Healey, however, said the order was motivated by “anti-Muslim sentiment” and “Islamophobia” and would not make the country, or Massachusetts, safer. And ACLU Carol Rose called the order “illegal” and “unpatriotic.”

UMass President Marty Meehan said the public higher education system has 166 faculty and staff from impacted countries and more than 300 students. The former congressman said the order sends the wrong message to other countries about the United States’ interests in collaboration and partnership.

“You cannot be a world class research institution and not reach out to those scientists, to those scholars, to those faculty members all over the world. This order undermines the mission of the University of Massachusetts,” Meehan said.

Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association Vice President for Government Advocacy Michael Sroczynski said there have been clinicians, researchers and professors from the medical community detained since the order went into effect, and warned that it could have a “chilling effect” on people wanting to come to the United States to work in a field that employs 630,000 people in Massachusetts.

Healey said she expected a hearing on the state’s complaint next week.