Homeland Security officials made false statements in a bid to justify expelling New York residents from programs that let United States travelers speed through borders and airport lines, federal lawyers admitted on Thursday.
The unusual admission, contained in a court filing, said the inaccuracies “undermine a central argument” in the Trump administration’s case for barring New Yorkers from the programs after the state passed a law enabling undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses.
The filing was a surprising retreat by the administration in its continuing battle with Democratic-led states and cities over immigration policy.
Federal officials had previously insisted that New York was an outlier in the restrictions it placed on the access the immigration authorities have to State Department of Motor Vehicles records.
For that reason, they argued, New York was endangering national security and could not be trusted to participate in Global Entry and related programs.
But in their filing on Thursday, the government lawyers acknowledged that several other states, Washington, D.C., and some U.S. territories also limited access to motor vehicle information and had not been subject to similar clampdowns.
Against that backdrop, the filing said, “The acting secretary of homeland security has decided to restore New York residents’ access to” what is officially known as the Trusted Traveler Program “effective immediately.”
The filing on Thursday came in response to lawsuits filed by New York State and the New York Civil Liberties Union over the decision to kick New Yorkers out of the programs.
“Defendants deeply regret the foregoing inaccurate or misleading statements and apologize to the court and plaintiffs for the need to make these corrections at this late stage in the litigation,” said Audrey Strauss, the acting United States attorney in Manhattan.
A spokesman for the United States attorney’s office declined further comment.
In their own filing, Justice Department lawyers for the Homeland Security Department echoed Ms. Strauss’s letter nearly word for word, asking the court to “accept this notice to correct the record, and permit defendants to withdraw the aforementioned arguments.”
Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, welcomed the department’s decision to reverse course, saying the state’s lawsuit had been focused on “stopping the president’s irrational, arbitrary and retaliatory rule.”
Christopher Dunn, the civil liberties union’s legal director, described the document filed by Ms. Strauss’s office as “extraordinary.” He said it proved “what we have said from the beginning: The Trump administration suspended Global Entry in New York in retaliation for the state’s decision to grant drivers’ licenses regardless of citizenship.”
The filing was the first tangible explanation for the timing of the Department of Homeland Security’s unexpected announcement on Thursday that it was allowing New Yorkers back into what is officially known as the Trusted Traveler Program.
The reversal came nearly six months after the department prohibited state residents from Global Entry and other programs because of the state’s so-called Green Light law.
Unlike its counterparts in other states, New York’s law — which took effect in December and has been a contentious subject in and outside the state — restricted the immigration authorities’ access to state motor vehicle records without a court order.
The suspension of New Yorkers from the travel programs came as Mr. Trump renewed his battle against cities and states that have embraced so-called sanctuary laws.
On Feb. 4, Mr. Trump criticized New York in his State of the Union address for not letting the police detain undocumented immigrants until federal agents could pick them up for deportation proceedings, and he blamed the city’s sanctuary policies for the rape and murder of a 92-year-old Queens woman by an undocumented immigrant who was accused in the crimes.
The next day, Chad F. Wolf, the acting homeland security secretary and a favorite of Mr. Trump’s for his hard-line stance on enforcement matters, said on Fox News that New Yorkers would be barred from the travel programs because of the sanctuary policies.
At the time, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo condemned the move, which had the potential to slow the travel routines of at least 175,000 New Yorkers, as “a form of extortion.”
The dispute escalated over the course of a week, until Mr. Cuomo met with President Trump at the White House in February in hopes of working out a compromise.
The agreement that was eventually reached, which was enacted in a state budget bill in April, gives the federal authorities access to the motor vehicle records of those who apply for trusted-traveler status and for cars being shipped in and out of the country.
Mr. Cuomo said in a statement on Thursday that it was the compromise he helped work out that paved the way for New Yorkers to be allowed back into the travel programs.
“I am glad that this issue has finally been resolved for all New Yorkers,” the governor said in a statement.
In his own statement, Mr. Wolf said that “we appreciate the information sharing” that enabled the department “to move forward and begin once again processing New York residents” in Trusted Traveler Programs.
Neither man mentioned the court filing and the admissions it contained, but Mr. Wolf did take a swipe at New York, saying the state “continues to maintain provisions that undermine the security of the American people and purport to criminalize information sharing between law enforcement entities.”
For Judge Jesse M. Furman of Federal District Court in Manhattan, who is overseeing the case, the litigation is not the first before him to involve Trump administration officials’ making false statements.
Last year, in a ruling the Supreme Court ultimately upheld, he blocked the Commerce Department from adding a question on American citizenship to this year’s census.
In a lengthy and stinging opinion, Judge Furman criticized Wilbur L. Ross Jr., the commerce secretary, and Mr. Ross’s aides for giving false or misleading statements under oath as they struggled to explain their rationale for adding the question.
Mr. Ross, Judge Furman wrote, had also broken “a veritable smorgasbord” of federal rules in ordering that the citizenship question be added while also cherry-picking facts to support his views, ignoring or twisting contrary evidence and hiding deliberations from Census Bureau experts.
For many New Yorkers, the practical impact of being allowed to participate in the travel programs again will be minimal for now.
Many countries are not allowing American travelers in amid the coronavirus pandemic and a surge in cases in many parts of the United States.
In addition, Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the programs, said on Monday that the enrollment centers where applicants are interviewed would be closed until at least Sept. 8.
Benjamin Weiser contributed reporting.