SEATTLE — For most of the time Syrian refugee Mohammad Al Zayed has been in the United States, judges have been wrestling with the Trump administration's efforts to impose travel restrictions that he says would keep him from seeing relatives who remain overseas.
It's taken an emotional toll — one that continues this week as two U.S. appeals courts take up the issue yet again.
"It's been 10 months, and we're stuck," Al Zayed, a janitor at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, said through an Arabic interpreter. "We can't go back. We can't bring our loved ones here."
Citing national security concerns, President Donald Trump announced his initial travel ban on citizens of certain Muslim-majority nations in late January, bringing havoc and protests to airports around the country. A federal judge in Seattle soon halted that ban as discriminatory, and since then, the restrictions have been up to the U.S. Supreme Court and back down to the federal district courts as the administration has rewritten them.
The third and latest version targets about 150 million potential travelers from Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, along with some Venezuelan government officials and their families.
The administration said the latest ban is based on assessments of each country's security situation and their willingness to share information about travelers. But judges in Hawaii and Maryland blocked it to varying degrees just before it was due to take effect in October. The judges found that the ban appears impermissibly discriminatory, has no legitimate national security purpose and violates U.S. immigration law.
On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments in Seattle on the government's appeal of the Hawaii judge's ruling. The panel has already narrowed that decision to allow the administration to bar travelers who do not have a "bona fide" relationship with people or organizations already in the U.S. — an approach that echoed the Maryland judge's ruling as well as an earlier travel ban decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.
A full complement of 13 judges on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is due to hear the government's appeal in the Maryland case on Friday in Richmond, Virginia.
Critics of Trump's travel restrictions insist that they make up the Muslim ban he promised during his campaign, and judges have seized on the president's public statements on Twitter and elsewhere in finding them unconstitutionally discriminatory.
This week's arguments arrive as Trump continues to stoke those anti-Islam sentiments: Just last week, he drew a sharp condemnation from British Prime Minister Theresa May's office when he retweeted a string of inflammatory videos from a fringe British political group purporting to show violence being committed by Muslims.
Government lawyers argue in briefs filed for the Maryland case that Trump's comments "primarily reflect an intent to protect the United States from the threat of terrorism by nationals from countries that pose heightened risks." The Trump administration says the travel policy will be reviewed periodically and the named countries are encouraged to work with the U.S. to address "inadequacies and risks" so that the restrictions "may be relaxed or removed as soon as possible."