(Bloomberg) -- Three refugee mothers who were forcibly separated from their children by the U.S. sued to intervene in a lawsuit over the government’s treatment of undocumented minors, accelerating new legal disputes even as President Donald Trump celebrates his travel ban victory.
The aggrieved women’s complaint in federal court in Los Angeles is one of a number of challenges to Trump’s policy that’s split more than 2,000 children from their immigrant parents in a span of less than two months.
Public fury over the border separations is reminiscent of the response a year and a half ago to Trump’s travel ban against several predominantly Muslim countries, which he said was needed to prevent terrorism. The Supreme Court on Tuesday backed that policy after a prolonged fight, giving a major boost to the president’s authority to determine who can enter the country.
Trump called the Supreme Court decision “a tremendous victory” and the “final word” on the issue.
Attention began pivoting to the child-separation issue in recent weeks as images of children in cages and tales of parents’ horror stories spread in the media and across social platforms. But unlike the travel ban fight, the child-separation issue involves individuals who have already set foot on U.S. soil. And the sounds and images of babies and toddlers has had emotions running high.
“Every minute that these children continue to be held in detention and separated from their parents, the emotional harm builds,” Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, which represents the women in the Los Angeles complaint, said in a statement Tuesday. “What these children are experiencing is unconscionable."
The lawsuit in Los Angeles is one of several filed in recent days by parents and rights groups. Immigrant rights activists sued in Seattle on June 24 on behalf of three Central American migrants, the Associated Press reported. Almost two dozen Democratic state attorneys general have also threatened litigation, much as they did over the travel ban.
The American Civil Liberties Union in March filed the earliest case in San Diego over the border policy and has already overcome a request by the government to throw the lawsuit out. The judge in that case called the practice of separation "brutal." The New York-based group is seeking a temporary court order to halt the separations and reunite all families.
It’s unclear how or to what extent the travel-ban ruling will impact the child-separation dispute. The former involves the president’s sweeping authority under federal immigration law, while the latter appears to focus on whether undocumented migrants have a constitutional right to due process and to make asylum claims. The ACLU doesn’t see a connection between the two.
"Nothing in today’s decision suggests that anything else the Trump administration has done to immigrants is OK,” Omar Jadwat, an ACLU lawyer, said in an email. “It’s not a green light for the administration to do anything it has done or might be contemplating doing.”
The three refugee mothers in the Los Angeles case say they fled Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador under threats of violence from ex-partners and gangs. They say they were separated from their children in a "chaotic and cruel" way and given "little or no information about their children’s whereabouts or well-being."
The women seek to intervene in an ongoing 1985 lawsuit that resulted in a 1997 settlement known as the Flores agreement, which governs how the U.S. treats detained immigrant children. They claim the U.S. is violating that landmark accord.
The Flores agreement is also on the Trump administration’s radar. Modifying the accord is the only way to implement Trump’s executive order to end the family separations since his directive calls for children to be detained with their parents indefinitely while their asylum cases are heard, the U.S. said in a filing. The Flores agreement limits child-detentions to 20 days.
A hearing is scheduled for July 27 on the plaintiffs’ request to enforce the Flores settlement.
Immigration lawyer Reaz Jafri, who isn’t involved in the cases, said the government’s "reprehensible" treatment of children at the border is likely to be upheld by the courts, particularly after Tuesday’s ruling by the high court.
"So long as the government protects these children, they have no legal right to be with their parents," Jafri said. "One could argue the position that separating parents from their children without due process is unconstitutional, but the government would argue it is not a permanent separation but a temporary one as their cases get processed."
The case is Flores v. Sessions, 85-cv-04544, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles).
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