The Memo: Trump’s immigration hawks grapple with new court blow

The courts have struck another blow to President TrumpDonald John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA MORE’s approach to immigration — but his backers insist the ruling is evidence of a liberal bias in the courts, rather than a sign there’s a problem with Trump’s stance.

The administration had sought to force people seeking asylum in the United States to come only through official ports of entry.


It portrays that policy as a response to the migrant caravan that originated in Central America, with the U.S. southern border as the group's destination. More broadly, Trump asserts there is a pattern of people with no legitimate claim to asylum pursuing such claims in order to circumvent immigration laws.

But U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar pushed back in a ruling released Monday, noting that existing law stipulates that people can claim asylum from anywhere on U.S. soil.

“Whatever the scope of the president’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden,” said Tigar, who was appointed by former President Obama.

Immigration hawks took the verdict as a sign to double down in their support for Trump and his approach.

“This is just another case of judicial activism. The Supreme Court ruled as recently as this year that the president has broad powers to limit who can come into this country when they upheld his executive order on travel restrictions,” said Ira Mehlman, the media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that seeks reductions in immigration.

“You continue to have judges who just believe they can put a stick in the spokes here,” he added. “That really has been the strategy all along, since the start of the administration.”


Advocates for more liberal immigration laws see things in an entirely different way, asserting that the administration is seeking to act by fiat and the courts are providing a crucial check on its powers.

“We weren’t surprised by the ruling,” said Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, a group that favors liberal reforms of the immigration system. “The asylum ban that the administration ordered was clearly illegal.”

Sharry added, “The fact is, this is a lawless administration.”

The battle was ratcheted up further by the president. Speaking to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before leaving for Florida for Thanksgiving on Tuesday afternoon, Trump described the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — where the administration has suffered legal setbacks before — as “a disgrace.”

He added, “every case [that] gets filed in the 9th Circuit, we get beaten and then we end up having to go to the Supreme Court.”

By implication, Trump was suggesting that Judge Tigar also sits on the 9th Circuit. In fact, Tigar sits on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

But Trump's remarks reveal a deeper frustration within the administration about the ability of the courts to put a brake on the kind of hard-line approach that Trump believes was instrumental in his winning the presidency in 2016.

Just a week into his presidency, he announced the deeply controversial travel ban — a Muslim ban, to its critics — which then got bogged down in the courts for months, though a later iteration did eventually pass muster at the Supreme Court.

In June, an equally explosive question — the separation of parents from children at the border — was also subject to court intervention. A federal judge in California ordered families reunited and demanded a stop to most of the separations.

In September 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPress: Acosta, latest to walk the plank The Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question Alabama senator says Trump opposed to Sessions Senate bid MORE announced the administration was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program first enacted by Obama. Litigation ensued. The effort to end the program is in limbo after intervention from two district courts.

Not all frustrations for the White House have stemmed from the courts. Congress has balked at giving Trump the money to build the southern border wall that he famously pledged during his presidential campaign. The president has suggested he could demand wall funding as the price to avoid a partial government shutdown next month.

But even some people who are broadly supportive of the president’s approach to immigration wonder if he has let opportunities slip by.

“In terms of legislation, it is too late now,” said Chris Chmielenski, deputy director of Numbers USA, which favors reduced immigration. “The opposition party is going to be taking control of the House of Representatives. The White House could have done a better job in pressuring Congress on things like mandatory E-Verify and the issue of chain migration.”

Late on Tuesday afternoon, a White House statement insisted that the administration would keep up the fight on the asylum seekers issue, despite Monday's legal setback.

The statement, from the office of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, asserted that “massive numbers of aliens are arriving at our southern border, threatening to incapacitate our already overwhelmed immigration system.”

Monday’s court decision, it added “will open the floodgates, inviting countless illegal aliens to pour into our country on the American taxpayer’s dime.”

But even if the president’s supporters are willing to give the administration leeway, critics like Sharry see the legal travails as testament to a fundamentally flawed approach.

“Honestly this is an administration that doesn’t know how to legislate, thinks it is above the law, and then wonders why it can’t get anything done,” he said.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.