By MICHAEL BALSAMO, WILL WEISSERT and GENE JOHNSON
Seventeen states, including New York and California, sued the Trump administration Tuesday to force it to reunite the thousands of immigrant children and parents it separated at the border, as the legal and political pressure mounted to reconnect families more quickly.
“The administrations 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 cant forget: The lives of real people hang in the balance.”
The states, all led by Democratic attorneys general, joined Washington, D.C., in filing the lawsuit in federal court in Seattle, arguing that they are being forced to shoulder increased child welfare, education and social services costs.
Separately, immigration-rights activists asked a federal judge in Los Angeles to order that parents be released and immediately reunited with their children.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on the multistate lawsuit. It had no comment on the Los Angeles filing.
In a speech before the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Los Angeles, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the administration for taking a hardline stand on illegal immigration and said the voters elected the president to do just that.
“This is the Trump era,” he said. “We are enforcing our laws again. We know whose side we are on — so does this group — and were on the side of police, and were on the side of the public safety of the American people.”
More than 2,000 children have been separated from their parents in recent weeks and placed in government-contracted shelters — hundreds of miles away, in some cases — under a now-abandoned policy toward families caught illegally entering the U.S.
Amid an international outcry, President Donald Trump last week issued an executive order to stop the separation of families and said parents and children will instead be detained together.
But precious few families have been reunited, and the Trump administration has disclosed next to nothing on how the process will be carried out or how long it will take.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Congress on Tuesday that his department still has custody of 2,047 immigrant children separated from their parents at the border. That is only six fewer children than the number in HHS custody as of last Wednesday.
Democratic senators said that wasnt nearly enough progress.
“HHS, Homeland Security, and the Justice Department seem to be doing a lot more to add to the bedlam and deflect blame than theyre doing to tell parents where their kids are,” Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said.
Under questioning, Azar refused to be pinned down on how long it will take to reunite families. He said his department does extensive vetting of parents to make sure they are not traffickers masquerading as parents.
Tens of thousands of Central American migrants traveling with children — as well as children traveling alone — are caught on the Mexican border each year. Many are fleeing gang violence in their home countries.
At a Texas detention facility, immigrant advocates complained that parents have gotten busy signals or no answers from a 1-800 number provided by federal authorities to get information about their children.
Attorneys have spoken to about 200 immigrants at the Port Isabel detention facility near Los Fresnos, Texas, since last week, and only a few knew where their children were being held, said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia.
“The U.S. government never had any plan to reunite these families that were separated,” Sandoval-Moshenberg said, and now it is “scrambling to undo this terrible thing that they have done.”
A message left for HHS, which runs the hotline, was not immediately returned.
Since calling for an end to the separations, administration officials have been casting about for detention space for migrants, with the Pentagon drawing up plans to hold as many as 20,000 at U.S. military bases.
At the same time, the administration has asked the courts to let it detain families together for an extended period while their immigration cases are resolved.
Under a 1997 court settlement, children must be released from detention as quickly as possible, which generally has been construed to be within 20 days.
Outraged by the family separations, immigrant supporters have led protests in recent days in states such as Florida and Texas.
On Tuesday, police arrested 25 demonstrators at a rally ahead of Sessions address.
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Outside the U.S. attorneys office, protesters carried signs reading, “Free the children!” and “Stop caging families.” Clergy members blocked the street by forming a human chain. They were handcuffed by police and led away.
Later, protesters gathered outside the hotel where Sessions gave his speech. As the attorney generals motorcade arrived, the crowd chanted, “Nazi, go home.”