Federal judges have halted Donald Trump's revised executive order to temporarily close US borders to refugees and nationals from six Muslim-majority countries, dealing the president a humiliating defeat.
The rulings triggered a nationwide freeze on enforcement of a ban on entry by nationals of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days. They also halt a 120-day suspension of the US refugee admissions program. Trump's restrictions had been due to go into effect Thursday.
On Wednesday, US District Judge Derrick Watson ruled that the state of Hawaii, in its legal challenge, had established a strong likelihood that the ban would cause "irreparable injury" were it to go ahead.
Early Thursday in Maryland, US District Judge Theodore Chuang issued a similar nationwide injunction on a separate complaint filed by advocacy groups claiming that the amended order discriminates against Muslims.
Chuang ruled that the plaintiffs "are likely to prevail on the merits, that they are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of injunctive relief and that the balance of the equities and the public interest favor an injunction."
Trump vowed to fight the "flawed" ruling all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, describing it as "unprecedented judicial overreach."
"The law in the Constitution gave the president the power to suspend immigration when he deems it to be in the national interest of our country," he said Wednesday in Nashville, Tennessee, adding: "We are going to win."
However, the court in Honolulu indicated that it would not stay its decision in the event of an appeal, meaning the ban cannot go ahead as planned on Thursday regardless of any action the White House takes.
It was the first court to issue its ruling in a trio of legal challenges against the ban, which had been set to go into effect at midnight.
Washington state's attorney general, meanwhile, filed an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order that would last up to 14 days in order to halt the travel restrictions, also citing "irreparable injuries."
- Muslim ban? -
The Trump administration's wide-ranging initial travel restrictions imposed on January 27 were slapped down by the federal courts, after sparking a legal, political and logistical furor.
Trump signed a revised ban behind closed doors on March 6 with a reduced scope, exempting Iraqis and permanent US residents, but maintaining the temporary ban on the other six countries and refugees.
The White House said those six countries were targeted because their screening and information capabilities could not meet US security requirements.
Watson, however, rejected the White House claim that the order wasn't a Muslim ban, ruling that it was plausible "to conclude that targeting these countries likewise targets Islam" given their Muslim populations ranging from 90.7 percent to 99.8 percent.
The judge made reference to several examples of Trump explicitly framing proposed action on immigration in religious tones, including a March 2016 interview during which the then president-elect said: "I think Islam hates us."
"Mr Trump was asked, 'Is there a war between the West and radical Islam, or between the West and Islam itself?' He replied: 'It's very hard to separate. Because you don't know who's who,'" the judge added.
The first version of Trump's order triggered protests at home and abroad as well as chaos at US airports as people were detained upon arrival and either held for hours or sent back to where they came from.
- Coast to coast -
The Trump administration narrowed the restrictions in its revised order to try to ensure it would be unassailable.
"This order doesn't draw any religious distinction at all," said Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, in defending the government's position.
Questioned about Trump's tweets and statements during the presidential campaign in which he promised to enact a "Muslim ban," Wall said: "There is a difference between a president and a candidate."
But critics say the new order essentially remains a ban on Muslims coming to the United States, and therefore unconstitutional because it singles out followers of a certain religion for discrimination.
Since September 11, 2001, the worst attacks in the United States have been committed either by Americans or by people from countries not on the Trump travel ban list.
Critics also argue that it will have a very negative effect on schools, universities and the business world, mainly the high tech sector, which employs many highly skilled immigrants.