The executive order on immigration that Donald Trump signed late last week didn’t just stop refugees from coming to the U.S. and keep out nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations. It also revoked more than 100,000 visas, according to a Department of Justice lawyer.
The eye-popping revelation—which Trump’s State Department says isn’t completely accurate—came Friday morning in federal court in Alexandria, when Judge Leonie Brinkema questioned DOJ attorney Erez Reuveni about the impact of the executive order. Reuveni was there arguing for the Trump administration and against lawyers for the Commonwealth of Virginia, as well as plaintiffs who had been unable to enter the U.S. because of the president’s order.
And Reuveni said that more than 100,000 people’s visas were revoked on 6:30 p.m. on Saturday when the president signed his executive order.
“The number 100,000 sucked the air out of my lungs,” Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center helping represent two plaintiffs, told reporters after the hearing. “I think you could almost hear the collective gasp in the courtroom when the government attorney stated that number.”
During the hearing, Brinkema noted that though she’s presided over court cases regarding 9/11, she had never seen a public response like the one Trump’s executive orders generated.
“I have never had so much public outpouring as I’ve seen in this case,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
“This order touched something in the U.S. I’ve never seen before,” she added.
The State Department disputes that number, and says fewer than 60,000 people had their visas revoked because of the president’s executive order. A State Department official said the revocations are temporary, and that some visas may be reinstated on a case-by-case basis after 90 days.
Regardless, it’s more evidence that the president’s executive order had a far-reaching, global impact—changing thousands of lives in an instant.
The Boston Globe reported that the State Department memo which officially revoked all those visas didn’t become public until it was filed in court as part of a lawsuit against Trump’s executive orders; the memo indicates it was signed on Jan. 27, but wasn’t filed in court—and, thus, made public—until Jan. 31.
Asked if the State Department made any efforts to publicize the memo before Jan. 31, a State Department official emailed this: “We cannot confirm or comment on internal U.S. government correspondence, and we do not comment on ongoing litigation.”
The Department of Homeland Security didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether it would target people whose visas were revoked for deportation. Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump frequently stated that people who stay in the U.S. for longer than their visas allow will be a top enforcement priority for his administration.
“Removing visa overstays will be a top priority of my administration,” he said on Aug. 31, 2015, when he rolled out his immigration policy proposal. “If people around the world believe they can just come on a temporary visa and never leave—the Obama-Clinton policy—then we have a completely open border. We must send the message that visa-expiration dates will be strongly enforced.”
Will that apply to people whose visas he himself revoked without warning? We’ll have to wait and see.
The push-back against Trump’s executive order is far from over. During the hearing, Reuveni noted that the executive orders have generated massive legal pushback. He said the Trump administration was currently being sued in 10 courts over the order, and would be lawsuits in 20 more tomorrow. It wasn’t clear if Reuveni was being facetious or not, and once the hearing was over he ducked out of the courthouse without talking to reporters.
In the ongoing legal battles over Trump’s executive order, a key question will be whether the executive branch has the power to unilaterally revoke visas en masse. Sandoval-Moshenberg told reporters after the hearing that he thinks the administration lawyers are misinterpreting a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which gives the State Department the power to revoke visas without judicial review.
“After the issuance of a visa or other documentation to any alien, the consular officer or the Secretary of State may at any time, in his discretion, revoke such visa or other documentation,” the provision reads.
The Trump administration clearly believes that provision gives them the authority to revoke thousands of visas. Sandoval-Moshenberg disagrees.
“It is not to be used en masse to cancel over 100,000 visas with the stroke of a pen,” he said.
It’s a fight that will play out in court, where Trump’s attorneys will be spending a lot of time.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Friday, Feb. 3, at 7:30 p.m.