Some legal analysis of Trump’s Muslim travel ban executive order


I read this woefully inadequate AP report this morning in the Arizona Daily Star which included this passage at the very end of the article without any explanation or analysis that could leave the false impression to readers uninformed in the law that this is a definitive statement of the law. White House predicts courts will reinstate travel ban:

The government had told the appeals court that the president alone has the power to decide who can enter or stay in the United States, an assertion that appeared to invoke the wider battle to come over illegal immigration.

Congress “vests complete discretion” in the president to impose conditions on entry of foreigners to the United States, and that power is “largely immune from judicial control,” according to the court filing.

So let’s begin with some basics. Deborah Pearlstein explains at the Balkinization Blogspot:

[Let’s] start with the basic legal question where the President gets the power to issue an order like this. It turns out to have a straightforward answer: Congress gave him the power in a law passed well before this administration, broadly authorizing the President to “suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants” whenever he finds their entry “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.” (8 U.S.C. § 1182(f)) It is true that another law provides that no person may be discriminated against in the issuance of a visa on the basis of their “nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” (8 U.S.C.§ 1152) There is a compelling argument that a court should read this anti-discrimination rule to limit the scope of the President’s power to suspend entries. But there are also arguments government lawyers will try to leverage against such a reading – like the argument that there is a difference between awarding visas and suspending entrance. And different judges read statutes differently.

The arguments that the order violates one or another provision of the Constitution – the Due Process Clause, the Establishment Clause, or the Equal Protection Clause – likewise face serious hurdles. While green card holders are certainly entitled to significant constitutional protection, the government has apparently pulled back from its earlier insistence that the order applies to that group of lawful U.S. residents. All other non-citizens at the borders – especially those with no previous connection to the United States – must confront the Supreme Court’s 60-year-old understanding that because the power to exclude aliens is a “fundamental sovereign attribute exercised by the government’s political departments,” it is “largely immune from judicial control.” It was on this basis that the Court held in the 1953 case Shaughnessy v. United States ex rel. Mezei that non-citizens at the border were not protected by ordinary principles of due process. Indeed, while non-citizens inside the United States are generally protected by the Constitution, non-citizens outside the United States traditionally are not.

Here too, there are strong arguments that this old constitutional rule cannot be squared with either basic fairness or contemporary constitutional reality. The Court held in 2008’s Boumediene v. Bush that non-citizens detained by the United States in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had a constitutional right under the Suspension Clause to seek a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. courts. It would be a perverse constitution indeed that gave non-citizens detained in Cuba more procedural rights than non-citizens detained at JFK airport. But the question remains entirely unsettled.

Even assuming all who are subject to the President’s order were entitled to full constitutional protection, their ability to succeed on the merits of their claims is far from clear. While there is no doubt the Equal Protection Clause applies to the federal government (through the Fifth Amendment), and while it plainly prohibits laws that discriminate on the basis of race or gender (or certain other classifications to various degrees), the Court has not traditionally relied on the Clause to bar discrimination on the basis of religion.

Claims about religious discrimination are instead usually brought under the First Amendment’s provision that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This claim is strong indeed. The President’s order bans immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, while at the same time establishing preferential treatment for refugees seeking asylum who are identified with “minority religions” in their country of origin. Most damning, the President himself has said that the order was intended to give priority to Christians seeking asylum over Muslims. Such discrimination runs afoul of everything the framers of the Constitution were trying to accomplish in building a nation that not only respected but defended religious freedom and diversity. If one could overcome the problem of constitutional protection for non-citizens, this argument should prevail in court. It should. But it may not. The country has never seen an order quite like this before. There is thus no foolproof precedent requiring that it be overturned.

Ilya Somin of the Volokh Conspiracy blog at the Washington Post takes a deep dive into the legal arguments. Why Trump’s refugee order is unconstitutional:

One of the main issues at stake in the growing legal battle over the order is whether the order qualifies as unconstitutional discrimination against Muslims. Despite a thin veneer of religious neutrality, the order does in fact target Muslims. And that should indeed lead courts to strike it down.

On its face, the order does not discriminate on the basis of religion. The text does not even mention Muslims or any other religious group by name. But the Supreme Court has long recognized that a seemingly neutral regulation qualifies as unconstitutional discrimination if the true purpose behind it is in fact to target a specific racial, ethnic, or religious group. It applied that principle to racial discrimination as far back as 1886 (Yick Wo v. Hopkins), and more recent decisions apply it to discrimination on the basis of religion, as well. In a 1993 case (Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah), the Supreme Court struck down a seemingly neutral law banning cruelty to animals because evidence showed it to have been motivated by hostility to the Santeria religion.

I. Trump’s Order Targets Muslims.

In some cases, it is difficult to figure out the true motive behind a facially neutral law or regulation. But, as Brown University Professor Corey Brettschneider explains in an excellent article, that isn’t a problem here:

[A] closer look at the executive order’s origins makes clear that it is a direct assault on the fundamental constitutional values of equal protection and religious freedom. How do we know this? Because Trump’s adviser, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, told us so.

Interviewed on Fox News on January 28, Giuliani explained how the administration’s immigration policy morphed from one that was obviously unconstitutional to one that is more subtly so. Host Jeanine Pirro asked, “Does the ban have anything to do with religion?” In response, Giuliani said, “When [Trump] first announced it, he said ‘Muslim ban.’ He called me up, he said, ‘Put a commission together, show me the right way to do it legally.’” “It,” in this case, of course, is a ban on Muslims. Giuliani’s admission is a textbook case of drafting an order in a way that avoids overt declaration of animus against a religious or ethnic group, while retaining the motive and much of the effect.

When you combine Giuliani’s admission with Trump’s own numerous statements advocating a Muslim ban, it’s hard to find a clearer case of discriminatory motives hiding behind a vener of neutrality. Even when Trump first shifted his proposal away from a facial ban on Muslims entering the US, he called it “an expansion” of his earlier explicit Muslim ban proposal rather than a repudiation of it. In other words, it was an attempt to target Muslims without saying so explicitly.

Note: Adam Liptak at the New York Times has an analysis, The President Has Much Power Over Immigration, but How Much? which includes this reference to the Trump Justice Department arguments to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals expressly rejecting this religious discrimination test:

The Trump administration urged the Ninth Circuit to reject arguments based on religious discrimination, even though Mr. Trump has said he meant to favor Christian refugees. Judicial consideration of the president’s motives, the brief said, would violate the separation of powers.

The more searching inquiry envisioned by the states would create substantial separation-of-powers problems, by permitting probing of the president’s subjective motive in issuing the order,” the brief said.

This is essentially a plenary powers argument (see below) that the court lacks authority to review the constitutionality or lawfulness of the president’s immigration executive order. This is a complete reversal of the GOP position against President Obama’s immigration orders on DACA and DAPA, which Tea-Publican members of Congress are currently litigating in the federal courts as “executive overreach.” IOKIYAR.

Back to Ilya Somin:

It’s hard to find a more blatant smoking gun in a case of this type than the one Trump and his minions have given us here. If this does not count as unconstitutional discrimination covered by a thin smokescreen of neutrality, it’s hard to see what does. Conservatives who may be inclined to support Trump’s order should remember that the same sorts of tactics could be used by blue states or a future Democratic president to target evangelicals or other theologically conservative groups (for example, in response to their refusal to provide services to same-sex weddings).

Some defenders of Trump’s order argue that it isn’t really targeted at Muslims because it only covers migrants from seven countries. Refugees from other Muslim nations are not affected. But a policy can be targeted at a group without sweeping in every member of it. For example, poll taxes and literacy tests in the Jim Crow South were clearly aimed at preventing blacks from voting even though some could get around it by passing the test or paying the tax.

Similarly, the unconstitutional motive behind Trump’s order can’t be sidestepped by pointing out that it blocks some non-Muslim refugees too. Poll taxes and literacy tests excluded a good many poor whites from the franchise, but were still clearly aimed at blacks. Just as the exclusion of some white voters was collateral damage from southern states’ efforts to target African-Americans, so the exclusion of Syrian Christian refugees is tragic collateral damage from Trump’s efforts to target Muslims.


Once the plaintiffs provide evidence that a facially neutral law or regulation may have an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose, the government has the burden of proving that it would still have adopted the policy in question even in the absence of any illicit motive. As the Judge James Robart put it in the oral argument held before he issued the order suspending enforcement of the order, the government must, at the very least, prove that its policy is “grounded in fact instead of fiction.” The administration is highly unlikely to be able to do that because the security rationale for the order is laughably weak. The policy actually undermines our security much more than it protects it. To quote Judge Robart again, “You’re here arguing on behalf of someone who says we have to protect the U.S. from these individuals coming from these countries, and there’s no support for that.”

II. The Plenary Power Doctrine.

If this were an ordinary discrimination case, Trump would have little chance of winning. But his order might still be saved by the so-called “plenary power doctrine,” which holds that the federal government has sweeping power over immigration issues, including overriding constitutional rights that constrain every other type of government policy. [This is, in fact, what the Trump Justice Department is relying on.] The Supreme Court has indeed at times ruled that the plenary power doctrine permits discrimination that would be forbidden in other contexts. But, as leading immigration law scholars Peter Spiro and Adam Cox explain, recent decisions suggest that the plenary power doctrine is not as robust as it once was, and might not stand in the way of invalidating Trump’s order.

The legal battle over the order is still in its early stages, and the ultimate outcome remains very much in doubt. But, so far, Cox and Spiro’s optimism has been vindicated by the string of preliminary victories those challenging the order have secured in several federal district courts.

I would add that the plenary power doctrine is ultimately indefensible and should be overruled by the Supreme Court. Nothing in the text or the original meaning of the Constitution indicates that immigration law is an exception to the constitutional rights that constrain every other type of government policy. The text does limit a few specific constitutional rights to American citizens, such as those protected by the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. But this only underscores the fact that other constitutional rights extend to everyone. There would be no need to explicitly limit some rights to citizens if there were a general presumption that non-citizens are excluded.

Moreover, most of the rights enumerated in the Constitution are stated as generalized limitations on government power, not as privileges reserved to some specific group of people, such as American citizens or permanent residents. That is certainly true of the religious Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, the three provisions at issue in the litigation over Trump’s order (the text of the Equal Protection Clause seems to limit its application to state governments, but the Court has long held that it restricts the federal government too). It is highly questionable whether the original meaning gives the federal government any general power to restrict immigration at all, much less one so sweeping that it overrides individual rights that restrict every other type of government action.

Some immigration restrictionists cite the Preamble of the Constitution as proof that the document does not protect aliens. I rebutted that claim here.

The origins of the plenary power doctrine lie not in the text of the Constitution but in the racial and ethnic prejudice of the same era that gave us Jim Crow and Plessy v. Ferguson. The Court should consign it to the same dustbin of history where Plessy has gone.

But striking down Trump’s order would not require the courts to overrule the plenary power doctrine completely. They need only rule that the doctrine is not so sweeping as to permit blatant religious discrimination unsupported by any reasonable security rationale.


  1. While I have no doubt Trump’s Executive Order has it’s roots in a Muslim ban wouldn’t there be a case to be made against it on the basis it promotes the religions of minority groups in each of the seven countries? It clearly seems to favor non-Islamic religions. After all the First Amendment is supposed to work against the governmental “establishment” of religion.

  2. Isn’t it interesting that when you seek out lawyers from the left they tell you President Trump is wrong? Who would guess?

    My money is on Trump prevailing on this. So far it has been dealt with through leftist judges with an axe to grind and the news has sought out speakers who hate Trump for commentary. Fortunately, polls are showing that the majority of Americans support Trump in his efforts and Trump is going to take it to the Supreme Court which is also going to support him. In the meantime, the 9th Circuit Court will issue it’s usual doomed to to be overturned findings against Trump’s Order and thier finding will have to be overturned…again…by the Supreme Court.

    Thank goodness that, in addition to being the most liberal Court in the Nation, the 9th Circuit Court is also the most overturned Court in the Nation. I read where there is a Bill in Congress to divide the 9th Circuit into two separate Courts with Arizona going into the new 12th Circuit Court. I hope it comes to fruition. It is embarrassing to be associated with such a loser of a Court as the 9th Circuit, to say nothing about the frustration of being associated with all the stupid decisions that come out of the Court.

    • You’ve got your FAUX News talking points down. Too bad they are alternative facts. Legal scholars say the 9th Circuit’s liberal reputation is overblown and dated.

      As a non-lawyer with no legal training or appellate court experience who wears partisan blinders and regurgitates right-wing talking points in trolling this blog, offering no evidence to support your argument, your opinion is worth less than nothing.

      The posts I have done on this topic have presented both sides of the legal argument, and the courts (so far) have come down on the side of the plaintiffs in issuing a temporary injunction. One only gets an injunction if the court finds that that the plaintiff “is likely to succeed on the merits” at trial of the case in chief. We’ll see how this plays out after oral arguments today. Regardless of how the 9th Circuit Court panel rules, the losing side will request an en banc hearing from the full appellate court and/or a direct appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The only issue to be decided is the injunction. The lawfulness and constitutionality of the executive order is before several federal trial courts across the nation, and each will progress on its own schedule through the appellate courts, and eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court. It will not be during this SCOTUS term.

      • “Legal scholars say the 9th Circuit’s liberal reputation is overblown and dated.”

        I understand your sensitivity toward criticism of the 9th Circuit. There is a reason why the left, whenever possible, tries to file lawsuits in the jurisdiction of the 9th Circuit: It leans to the left and there is a good chance the Court will rule in favor of the left. Regardless of the reputation being “overblown and dated”, it is still a left leaning Court that can be counted upon to rule in favor of leftist causes.

        “…who wears partisan blinders and regurgitates right-wing talking points…”

        Partisan blinders? Partially true, but I have also been persuaded to change my opinion based on what I have read here and conversations I have had with posters. Regurgitates right-wing talking points? Since I have no idea what talking points you are referring to, and express only my personal opinion here, I don’t think so.

        “The posts I have done on this topic have presented both sides of the legal argument…”

        Yes you have, AzBM. You are honest about the subject and have discussed it honestly in your messages. I would never fault you for that. My comments were directed at the duplicity of the people whose articles you were posting. Their bias was obvious.

        “…your opinion is worth less than nothing.”

        That’s a bit harsh, but I understand what you meant. However, an opinion on this does not necessarily require I be an attorney or have practiced law before the Bar. The issue is not as complicated as you make it seem. I believe the President has the power to do what he is doing because Congress gave the President the power to do so many years ago. If the Courts rule on the basis of law rather than political leanings, I think Trump will prevail.

        • So your response is what FAUX News has encouraged for years by reducing facts to debatable opinions with its “we report, you decide” mantra: “Don’t bother me with the facts, I know what I believe!” Weak.

          • “So your response is what FAUX News has encouraged for years by reducing facts to debatable opinions with its “we report, you decide” mantra: “Don’t bother me with the fats, I know what I believe!” Weak.

            Well, “weak” is an improvement over my opinion being “worth less than nothing”. Thanks for the upgrade! ;o)

            Actually, I don’t watch Fox News. There are too few hours in the day to spend them watching TV of any sort. But if I do take the time to watch TV, I find the news , in general, is more infotainment than news and is a waste of valuable time.

            I will tell you that sometimes “facts” are often subject to interpretation. As a lawyer you should know that better than anyone. That is the very heart of the law, determining what the facts really mean. I have never known anyone more capable of an “alternative interpretation” of facts than an attorney. That is how attorneys make their living, for gosh sakes! If you sit in on a criminal case being tried, you have to wonder if the Defense Attorney and the Prosecutor are even trying the same case because of the divergent opinions on what the “facts” of the case are. And in contract law, it is amazing how clauses can be interpreted to mean different things by different attorneys. And remember Clinton and the meaning of “is”?

            So when I offer an opinion, it is simply a laymen’s view of what the law seems to mean. You wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t interpret it differently because we don’t see the world the same way. That is one of the things that makes life so interesting and delightful. And one of the reasons I enjoy reading your postings here…

  3. When are we going to start protecting America’s young boys and put a ban on Catholic Priests entering the country?

    • Time after time, we see Priests committing crimes against children, and Catholics refuse to speak out, so I’m amending my statement.

      For Sure Not Tom is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Catholics entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on!

      • We are learning that Catholics are also Christians, and that most crimes and murders committed in the United States and around the world are committed by Christians.

        For Sure Not Tom is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Christians entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on!

        • We are learning that Christianity and Islam are “religions”, and that people in these religions are killing each other, and many, many innocent people, in the name of their religions.

          These are some bad hombres, really bad guys.

          For Sure Not Tom is calling for a total and complete shutdown of religious people entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on!

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