By Yeganeh Torbati
GREENBELT, Md. (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Monday questioned attorneys defending the Trump administration about a classified report the government is using to justify its latest ban on citizens of some countries from entering the United States.
U.S. District Court Judge Theodore Chuang in Maryland heard arguments for and against President Donald Trump's new travel ban, set to take effect on Wednesday. It indefinitely limits travel from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea. Certain government officials from Venezuela were also barred.
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All those countries except Chad, North Korea and Venezuela were included in two earlier temporary versions of the travel ban, which Trump's opponents called thinly veiled attempts to fulfill his campaign pledge of a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."
Lawyers for advocacy groups including the International Refugee Assistance Project, Iranian Alliances Across Borders and the Council on American-Islamic Relations urged Chuang to block implementation of what critics call Trump's "Muslim ban."
Opponents say the ban violates the U.S. Constitution because it discriminates against Muslims while overstepping the bounds of U.S. immigration law by discriminating by nationality. Trump has said the restrictions are needed to tighten security and prevent terrorist attacks.
The third ban came in a Sept. 24 presidential proclamation that Trump issued after acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke provided him with a classified report recommending the travel restrictions.
Chuang asked Hashim Mooppan, the attorney representing the government, if there were inconsistencies between the homeland security report and Trump's proclamation. Mooppan declined to discuss details of the classified report, and said the government does not have to explain whether Trump's advisers disagreed about the ban.
"We stand by the factual representations in the proclamation," Mooppan said.
On Friday, in a separate case against the ban in Hawaii, the government said the judge can review the classified report only in a secure setting.
Chuang struck down an earlier iteration of the ban, which was only partially restored by the U.S. Supreme Court in June.
An attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union, Omar Jadwat, argued that the new version is a "a bigger, tougher version of the same ban" that Trump originally wanted.
Trump could have achieved the same national security goals with "far more targeted measures" similar to the restrictions on Venezuelan government officials, rather than broad bans against certain nationalities, argued Justin Cox, an attorney at the National Immigration Law Center.
Mooppan argued that because the new version of the ban went in place after a thorough review, it does not constitute a "Muslim ban." The third version of the ban omitted Iraq, which was included in the first ban and Sudan, which was in the second version.
"The proclamation dropped multiple Muslim countries and exempted multiple types of non-immigrant visas even from the Muslim countries," he said. "That is strong evidence that this is not some kind of Muslim ban in disguise."
Chuang said he would rule later on whether to grant the challengers' request for an injunction.
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Greenbelt; additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)