Seattle lawsuit challenges bar on entry of refugee's family

SEATTLE -- A Somali refugee living in Washington state is asking a federal judge to let his wife and young children join him in the U.S., saying the Trump administration's indefinite ban on allowing the families of refugees to enter the country violates immigration law.

The man, identified by the pseudonym Joseph Doe in a motion filed in federal court late Monday, said in a sworn declaration that he fled the Somali civil war with his parents and siblings as a 10-year-old boy. The family eventually made it to Kenya — except for his sister, who died after being raped by fighters who found them hiding in a forest.

He spent nearly 22 years in refugee camps in Kenya, eventually marrying and having his own family, he said. His resettlement in the U.S. was eventually approved, and he came in January 2014 — on his own, because his application had been filed when he was a child.

He applied to have his wife and children — now 4, 5 and 9 — join him in the Seattle suburb of Des Moines, he said, and after a years-long process that included security and medical screenings, they were approved. But due to President Donald Trump's various bans on travelers from certain nations and his suspension of the U.S. refugee program, they've been blocked from coming to the U.S.

"There isn't a day that I do not think of my wife and children, wish that I could just hold and hug them, and dream of being able to be a family again, all together in one place," Doe wrote.

While courts have blocked the latest iteration of Trump's travel ban, the administration has also adopted a new policy requiring additional vetting of refugees. As part of that policy, laid out in a memo Oct. 23, the administration has indefinitely banned the spouses or minor children of refugees already in the U.S. from joining them.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which is representing Doe, that violates U.S. immigration law, which guarantees that refugees are entitled to have their families join them provided they undergo screening.

"Congress created an entitlement allowing refugees to bring their immediate families — spouses and unmarried children under the age of twenty-one — to join them in the United States," the organization wrote in a motion filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle. "And it did so using plain language that nowhere gives Defendants the authority to rescind that entitlement."

The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing litigation. But in the Oct. 23 memo, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said it was important to ban the so-called "following-to-join" refugees for now because most are not subjected to extensive vetting.

"We have jointly determined that additional security measures must be implemented before admission of following-to-join refugees can resume," they said.

Refugees in the U.S. each year petition for about 2,500 immediate family members to join them, the memo said.

The ACLU's motion was filed as part of a case the organization brought in February challenging Trump's initial travel ban. The case had been on hold pending other legal challenges around the country, but last week, Judge James Robart agreed to allow the ACLU to bring the new motion.

The motion seeks to block the administration from enforcing its ban in the plaintiff's case, as well as in the case of any other refugees in Washington state who seek to have their families join them.

At least one other lawsuit has questioned the legality of the ban on "following-to-join" refugees, a case brought by advocates for Iranian-Americans in federal court in Washington, D.C.