It was the first significant legal test so far of Trump’s policies and power and could lead to a precedent-setting expansion on the limits of presidential authority, especially within the immigration context.
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A major sticking point for the justices was navigating how much discretion the president really has over immigration. Courts have historically been deferential in this area, and recent presidents from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama have used it to deny entry to certain refugees and diplomats, including nations such as Iran, Cuba and North Korea. A 1952 federal law — the Immigration and Nationality Act, passed in the midst of a Cold War fear over Communist influence — historically gives the chief executive broad authority It reads in part: “Whenever the president finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may, may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.”
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“The issue before us is not whether to denounce the statements,” wrote Roberts. “It is instead the significance of those statements in reviewing a Presidential directive, neutral on its face, addressing a matter within the core of executive responsibility. In doing so, we must consider not only the statements of a particular President, but also the authority of the Presidency itself.”
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Trump’s first executive order was issued just a week after he took office, and was aimed at seven countries. It triggered chaos and protests across the U.S., as some travelers were stopped from boarding international flights and others detained at airports for hours. Trump modified the order after a federal appeals court refused to allow the ban to be enforced. “This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe,” the president said on Jan. 29, 2017. The next version, unveiled weeks later, dropped Iraq from the list of covered countries and made it clear the 90-day ban covering Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen didn’t apply to those travelers who already had valid visas. It also got rid of language that would give priority to religious minorities. Critics said the changes did not erase the legal problems with the ban.
The president has been vindicated, in that his authority to act on immigration through executive action has been preserved. The states suing the federal government argued that the president’s campaign statements belied the racial intent of the policy, when in fact several previous administrations had employed similar policies.