(Bloomberg) -- Seventeen U.S. states sued over the federal government’s controversial policy of separating undocumented children from their parents, intensifying an ongoing legal fight just hours after President Donald Trump scored a major victory on his travel ban.
A complaint calling the policy unconstitutional was filed Tuesday in federal court in Seattle by states including Washington, California and New York, as well as the District of Columbia. The states claim the policy is violating immigrants’ Fifth Amendment rights to equal protection and due process.
Notably, the states said Trump’s June 20 executive order purporting to reverse the child-separation policy is “illusory” and “raises the specter of internment camps.” The joint effort by the Democratic state attorneys general mirrors the battle over Trump’s travel ban against several Muslim-majority countries -- a battle they lost Tuesday in a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling along ideological lines.
The policy, initially defended aggressively by Trump and his allies before wide criticism made him reverse course, has split more than 2,000 children from their immigrant parents in a span of less than two months.
U.S. border agents have “taken children as young as infants from their parents, often with no warning or opportunity to say goodbye, and providing no information about where the children are being taken or when they will next see each other," according to the complaint.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is co-leading the case with his counterparts in Washington and Massachusetts, said in a statement that the separation practice -- spearheaded by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions -- is "a new low" exemplified by "child internment camps."
"President Trump’s indifference towards the human rights of the children and parents who have been ripped away from one another is chilling,” Becerra said in a statement. "The safety, security and well-being of our children is too important to be threatened by a heartless political maneuver."
The complaint says Trump’s policy is wrongfully using the terror of child-separation as leverage to discourage would-be asylum-seekers from entering the U.S., citing a June 17 remark by Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway on NBC’s “Meet the Press."
“Nobody likes seeing babies ripped from their mothers’ arms, from their mothers’ wombs, frankly, but we have to make sure that DHS’s laws are understood through the soundbite culture that we live in," Conway said, according to the complaint.
The states also called out the administration’s many inconsistent comments about the policy, noting that Trump incorrectly blamed the "horrible law" on Democrats a few weeks before Sessions "quoted a Bible verse ostensibly to justify the policy to leaders of the faith community," according to the complaint.
The press offices for the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment.
The attorneys general are seeking a court order halting the separation process and forcing the government to reunite families. The states also want to bar the Trump administration from deporting parents without their kids or conditioning reunification on an agreement to not seek asylum.
Trump’s executive order to halt the child-separation practice seeks to detain families together indefinitely instead. The directive hasn’t taken effect because it requires a judge to first amend a 1997 settlement agreement that governs how the U.S. treats undocumented minors who’ve been detained.
That accord, known as the Flores agreement, says children cannot be held for longer than 20 days, among other restrictions. The executive order would likely result in minors being detained with their parents for far longer periods while their asylum claims are heard. The U.S. this month asked a federal judge to amend the order to allow for longer detentions.
"Neither the order nor the administration’s Flores application offer any assurance that the Administration will not return to a family separation policy when its efforts to intern families together fail," the states said in their suit.
The ACLU was first to challenge the child-separation policy. The New York-based group sued in San Diego federal court, contending the policy violates the due process rights of immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. The rights group is awaiting a ruling a request to halt the separations and reunite families while the case proceeds.
The commissioner of Customs and Border Protection announced Monday that his agency has stopped referring adults who illegally cross the border with children for criminal prosecution because that would require separating parents from their children. He said the move was in response to Trump’s June 20 order and that his agency was working on a plan to resume criminal referrals.
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