By Richard Cowan and Jonathan Stempel
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – More than a dozen states sued the Trump administration on Tuesday over its separation of migrant children and parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, saying President Donald Trump’s order last week ending the breakups was illusory.
In a complaint filed with U.S. District Court in Seattle, 17 states and the District of Columbia argued the administration’s policy was unconstitutional in part because it was “motivated by animus and a desire to harm” immigrants arriving from Latin America.
“The new federal executive order does not bring back together the thousands of families that were torn apart by the federal government’s policy, and it does not prevent families from being separated in the future,” Illinois Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
The family separations began because of the administration’s 2-month-old “zero tolerance” policy of seeking to prosecute all adults who cross the border illegally, including those traveling with children.
But Trump backtracked last Wednesday amid mounting global outrage, including images of children in cages.
The Republican president’s order ending the family separations did not explain how his aggressive immigration policies could be adjusted to keep families intact, house them and assess their legal status.
Although the administration has said the zero tolerance policy remains in place, officials said on Monday that parents who crossed illegally with their children would not face prosecution, for the time being, because the government was running short of space to house them.
Before Trump issued his order last week, more than 2,300 children had been separated from their parents under his policy. The government has yet to reunite about 2,000 children with their parents, and those youngsters are now scattered across the country, some in foster homes and others in institutions, their whereabouts often unknown to their parents.
In a ruling on Tuesday that recognized the president’s broad authority to set immigration policy, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, upheld Trump’s travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority countries.
No prompt action on dealing with the border seemed forthcoming from the Republican-controlled Congress, which remained deeply divided on the issue.
After retreating on the family separations, Trump urged Congress to act quickly and follow up his order with legislation, then said lawmakers should give up on it.
He returned to a favorite theme on Tuesday and said he would ask Congress for an increase in U.S. taxpayer funding for a wall he wants to build along the border with Mexico.
Amid the mixed messages, the House of Representatives was on track to vote on Wednesday on a broad-based immigration bill that would bar the separation of migrant children from their parents. It would also provide $25 billion in wall funding. But the measure was widely expected to fail.
“We’ve made it extremely clear we want to keep families together and we want to secure the border and enforce our laws,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a news conference.
Ryan said the broader bill would resolve the issue of young adults known as “Dreamers,” who were brought to the United States illegally as children, focus on a merit-based immigration system and secure U.S. borders and the rule of law.
Several House conservatives left a closed-door meeting of Republicans early on Tuesday expressing discontent with the broad bill. Without their support, it will likely be rejected.
Republican Representative Scott DesJarlais, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus faction, said he would oppose the broad bill. A separate conservative-backed immigration bill failed to pass the House last week, extending Congress’ years-long failure to produce immigration legislation.
Ryan said he would not rule out the possibility of bringing to a vote a narrower bill addressing only the detention of immigrant families, if the broader bill did not pass.
Senate Democrats and Republicans have been exploring possible legislation to ban the separation of immigrant children from their families and require rapid reunification of children taken from their parents under the zero tolerance policy.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday he would like to see the Senate unanimously pass legislation to prevent family separations.
“We’re hopeful that they can reach an agreement to deal with this real emergency issue,” McConnell told reporters, referring to a Senate compromise effort by Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Ted Cruz.
“If they can, I would hope that it’d be something the Senate could pass on a voice vote,” McConnell said.
Lawmakers concur on the need for ending separations and speeding reunifications, but disagree on Republican attempts to lift a court decree known as the Flores agreement that limits federal detentions of children to 20 days.
On Monday, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin told reporters: “Eliminating the Flores agreement removes humanitarian standards on the treatment of the children … we are not going to water that down.”
(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Jonathan Stempel; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Amanda Becker, Susan Cornwell and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Writing by Kevin Drawbaugh; Editing by Paul Simao and Peter Cooney)