Hawaii judge won’t step in on travel ban enforcement

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A federal judge refused Thursday to alter the Trump administration’s tight interpretation of the parts of the president’s travel ban that the Supreme Court has allowed him to enforce — excluding grandparents and grandchildren of some U.S. residents, and most refugees — and said any changes were up to the nation’s high court.

“This court declines to usurp the prerogative of the Supreme Court to interpret its own order,” said U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson of Hawaii.

That could mean the current rules, narrowly limiting entry by residents of six mostly Muslim nations and all refugees, will remain in place until the Supreme Court takes up the case. The court plans a hearing at the start of its 2017-18 term in October and is in recess until then, although plaintiffs could ask the justices for immediate intervention.

President Trump’s March 9 executive order would impose a 90-day travel ban on anyone from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen, and a 120-day ban on admission of refugees fleeing violence and hardship in their homelands. After Watson and a federal judge in Maryland barred enforcement of the order and were upheld by appeals courts, the Supreme Court granted review June 26 and allowed partial enforcement of the order while the case was pending.

The court said the government could exclude travelers from the six nations, or refugees, who lacked a “bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” Any personal connection must be a “close family relationship,” the court said.

The order did not define those terms, but administration officials have applied strict criteria, limiting close family relations to spouses, parents, children, siblings, fiances, fiancees, and mothers- and fathers-in-law. They excluded grandparents, grandchildren, uncles, aunts and cousins.

The administration also excluded the most common category of refugees, those who, after gaining approval for entry from U.S. officials, have their resettlement arranged by a nonprofit agency. Administration officials said those agencies do not have a “bona fide relationship” with the refugees, only with the government, which funds and commissions their services.

Plaintiffs, led by the state of Hawaii, argued that the definitions ignored the standard meaning of close family members and distorted agencies’ relationships with the refugees they sponsor. But Watson said the Supreme Court was the best judge of the meaning of its order.

“The parties quarrel over the meaning and intent of words and phrases authored not by this court, but by the Supreme Court,” he said. “Clarification should be sought there, not here.”

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @egelko