Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, who is defending the travel ban, told a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle that the executive order halting travel from six majority Muslim nations doesn't say anything about religion.
"This order is aimed at aliens abroad, who themselves don't have constitutional rights," Wall said in a hearing broadcast live on C-Span and other news stations.
Advocates for refugees and immigrants rallied outside the federal courthouse in Seattle, some carrying "No Ban, No Wall" signs.
Trump's executive would suspend the nation's refugee program and temporarily bar new visas for citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Last week, judges on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments over whether to affirm a Maryland judge's decision putting the ban on ice. They focused their questions on whether they could consider Trump's campaign statements calling for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., with one judge asking if there was anything other than "willful blindness" that would prevent them from doing so.
On Monday, Wall told the judges that "over time, the president clarified that what he was talking about was Islamic terrorist groups and the countries that sponsor or shelter them."
Monday's arguments mark the second time Trump's efforts to restrict immigration from certain Muslim-majority nations have reached the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit.
After Trump issued his initial travel ban on a Friday in late January, bringing chaos and protests to airports around the country, a Seattle judge blocked its enforcement nationwide — a decision that was unanimously upheld by a three-judge 9th Circuit panel.
The president then rewrote his executive order, rather than appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in March, U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson in Honolulu blocked the new version from taking effect, citing what he called "significant and unrebutted evidence of religious animus" in Trump's campaign statements.
"Again, in this court, the President claims a nearly limitless power to make immigration policy that is all but immune from judicial review," Hawaii Attorney General Douglas Chin wrote to the 9th Circuit. "Again, he must be checked."
Neal Katyal, a former acting attorney general for Hawaii, will represent the state of Hawaii. Each side has been allotted 30 minutes but will be granted more if necessary.
The administration's lawyers are seeking to persuade the judges that the lower court's decision is "fundamentally wrong," and that the president's order falls squarely within his duty to secure the nation's borders. The order as written is silent on religion, and neither Hawaii nor its co-plaintiff, the imam of the Muslim Association of Hawaii, has standing to sue, they say — arguments that were rejected in the lower court.
The travel ban cases are expected to reach the Supreme Court, but that would likely be cemented if the 4th and 9th Circuits reach differing conclusions about its legality. Because of how the courts chose to proceed, a full slate of 13 judges heard the 4th Circuit arguments last week, while just three, all appointees of President Bill Clinton, will sit in Seattle.
For that reason — with the possibility for myriad concurring or dissenting opinions — it could take the 4th Circuit longer to rule, noted Carl Tobias, a law professor at University of Richmond law school in Virginia.