As Noah Purcell watched chaos descend on airports across the nation over the last weekend of January, he knew he had to challenge the executive order that denied entry into the United States to citizens of seven predominantly Muslum countries. Purcell, Washington State’s solicitor general, became a pivotal member of the team that built and argued the case that brought the Trump administration’s original travel ban to a halt.
“It seemed the order was done to keep a discriminatory campaign promise to target Muslims rather than for actual security reasons,” Purcell recalls. “It showed a lack of thought and care to the legal issues.”
The executive order denied entry into the United States to citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, among them Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Even longtime U.S. residents from those countries, including green card and visa holders, students, and preapproved refugees, were held upon arrival at U.S. airports or barred from boarding flights abroad. Hours after the ban went into effect, lawyers and nonprofit groups arrived in droves to help.
To Purcell, the legal issues were clear. They included a violation of the First Amendment by disfavoring one religion, a violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act by discriminating based on country of origin, and a lack of due process for those affected because there was no way for them to prove why they weren’t a risk.
“About a half million people in the United States who have green cards come from those seven countries,” says Purcell. “You could have been here for 20 years working at a U.S. business or teaching at a university, with children of U.S. citizenship, and all of a sudden you can’t leave the country and come back, or you can’t come back if you’re overseas.”
Purcell’s boss, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, quickly gave the green light for Purcell and his team to set to work preparing over the weekend, gathering all the evidence they could find: Professors with green cards at public universities were stranded overseas; an Iranian-born dean from the University of Washington had to cancel a keynote address at a conference in Hong Kong because she wasn’t sure whether she’d be allowed back into the United States. The team also reached out to Washington-based companies such as Expedia and Amazon to see how they had been affected.
“Nobody slept very much that weekend,” recalls Purcell. “But we had to move quickly, because every hour people were literally being turned away.”
The case was filed on the Monday following the ban. Purcell argued the case on behalf of Washington State before a U.S. District Judge on Friday, and that same day the judge ruled in favor of the temporary restraining order. Four days later, before Purcell could even take a breath, he was on a conference call with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the temporary restraining order.
“It happened extremely fast; it’s hard to remember how immediately this stuff was all happening, and how urgent it was,” he says now. “There was a lot hanging in the balance.”
The federal government came out with a revised ban in March, and by then, other parties, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the state of Hawaii, had challenged the new version. The current Executive Order, as limited by modified injunctions that went into effect in June, bars foreign nationals from a list of six countries who don’t have a “bona fide relationship with any person or entity in the United States.” At press time, the Supreme Court was slated to hear arguments on the order in October.
Purcell believes his early wins were an indicator that the nation’s system of checks and balances still works. He just hopes the damage done isn’t irreversible.
“One of the most unfortunate things about the travel ban is that it didn’t just scare off people from those seven countries,” says Purcell. “It also made people from other countries very nervous about coming here to visit and staying here for work. I think that’s going to hurt us not just economically, but also socially. People should see the United States as a beacon for freedom and opportunity, and the travel ban really sent the opposite message.”