Seventeen states, including New York and California, are suing the Trump administration to force it to reunite the thousands of immigrant children and parents who have been separated at the US-Mexico border.
The states, all led by Democratic attorneys general, joined Washington DC 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.
“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.”
Separately, immigration-rights activists asked a federal judge in Los Angeles to order that parents be released and immediately reunited with their children.
In a speech before the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Los Angeles, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the administration for taking a hardline stand on illegal immigration and said the voters elected President Donald Trump 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 we’re on the side of police, and we’re on the side of the public safety of the American people.”
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on the multistate lawsuit and had no comment on the Los Angeles filing.
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 US.
Amid an international outcry, Mr 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.
Juan Sanchez, chief executive of the nation’s largest shelters for migrant children, said he fears a lack of urgency by the US government could mean it will take months to reunite families.
Mr Sanchez with the non-profit Southwest Key Programs said in an interview with The Associated Press that the government has no process in place to speed the return of children to their parents.
“It could take days,” he said. “Or it could take a month, two months, six or even nine. I just don’t know.”
Health and Human Services (HHS) 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 was not 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 they’re doing to tell parents where their kids are,” Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said.
Under questioning, Mr 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.