Seventeen US states led by Democratic attorney generals are suing the Trump administration in an effort to force officials to reunite migrant families separated at the border.
In the latest setback for Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, the states, which include New York, California and Washington, filed lawsuits on Tuesday accusing the government of denying migrants their rights.
“The administration’s practice of separating families is cruel, plain and simple,” New Jersey attorney general Gurbir Grewal said in a statement. “Every day, it seems like the administration is issuing new, contradictory policies and relying on new, contradictory justifications. But we can’t forget: The lives of real people hang in the balance.”
More than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border in recent weeks and placed in government-contracted shelters hundreds of miles away. Following uproar on both sides of the aisle, and internationally, Trump last week signed an executive order to end the controversial practice.
The administration was obliged to walk its policy back further when, on Monday, the nation’s top border security official said his agency would temporarily stop referring migrant parents who cross the border with their children for criminal prosecution.
But hundreds of detained parents are still awaiting news of their children’s whereabouts. Experts told the Guardian of their concerns that the promised reunions won’t happen any time soon – if at all, amid ongoing bureaucratic chaos from the federal government.
In a statement announcing the lawsuit, Illinois Democratic attorney general Lisa Madigan said Trump’s executive order does not bring back together the thousands of families that were torn apart by the two-month old “zero tolerance” policy, and it does not prevent families from being separated in the future.
Alex Azar, Secretary for Health and Human Services, said on Tuesday that the agency has 2,047 migrant children in its custody – just six fewer than the number in HHS custody six days ago.
Asked repeatedly by Democratic senator, Ron Wyden, how many parents knew where there children are, Azar replied: “Every parent has access to know where their child is… Every parent should know where they are.”
In the court filing in the US district court in Seattle, the seventeen states contended that the administration’s policy deprives parents and children of due process and denies immigrants fleeing violence the right to apply for asylum.
At Port Isabel detention center in Texas, Sirine Shebaya, a civil rights lawyer based in Washington DC, said she and a small group of lawyers spoke with roughly 150 migrant parents whose children had been taken from them when they crossed the border.
“We were really shocked by what we found,” Shebaya said. “They decided to separate kids from their parents seemingly without any thought for how to reunite people once they’ve been separated.”
The Department of Homeland Security has dedicated Port Isabel as the “primary family reunification and removal center for adults in their custody”. But instead of reunions, Shebaya said she witnessed only the desperation of the detained parents.
Several parents said they were considering giving up their asylum claims in hope of being reunited with a child.
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“They thought they were making a choice,” Shebaya said. “Am I fighting to stay in the US at the risk of never seeing my child again?”
She added: “The basic problem and what’s really causing all of this is that people who are coming here seeking asylum are not being treated as asylum seekers and are instead being treated as criminals.”
Children separated from their parents have been placed in shelters in Texas, as well as facilities in states as far-flung as New York, Virginia and Michigan. The Pentagon is also preparing to temporarily house immigrants at two military bases in Texas.
Though the separations have stopped, Trump’s executive order has sowed even more confusion on the ground.
“The United States government knows the location of all children in its custody and is working to reunite them with their families,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement released over the weekend. It added: “This process is well coordinated.”
But attorneys with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represents hundreds of separated families, said in a statement on Monday it has “grave concerns about the government’s ability to track parents and children who have been caught up in this crisis”.
522 children had been reunited with their parents since the policy began in May and that 16 more reunions were scheduled to take place but delayed because of weather.
In Texas on Monday, the Customs and Border Protection commissioner, Kevin McAleenan, said Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not have enough detention space to accommodate families, as outlined under Trump’s executive order. Until his agency and the justice department find a way to prosecute adults who bring their children across the border without separating the families, the agency will stop referring cases involving parents for criminal prosecution. Single adults would continue to be referred for prosecution for illegally crossing the US border.