WASHINGTON — A federal judge in California issued a nationwide injunction late Tuesday temporarily stopping the Trump administration from separating children from their parents at the border and ordered that all families already separated be reunited within 30 days.
Judge Dana M. Sabraw of the Federal District Court in San Diego said children under 5 must be reunited with their parents within 14 days, and he ordered that all children must be allowed to talk to their parents within 10 days.
“The unfortunate reality is that under the present system, migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property,” the judge wrote.
Judge Sabraw’s order, which is likely to prompt a high-profile legal battle with the Justice Department, came on the same day that President Trump won a landmark legal victory when the Supreme Court upheld his travel ban, ending a 17-month legal fight.
But the judge’s ruling in the family separation case raises the stakes on an issue that had already become an intensely difficult political crisis for Mr. Trump. The president last week issued an executive order seeking to bring family separations to an end, but saying little about reuniting families.
The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a lawsuit to stop the separations before the president’s executive order. In his order, Judge Sabraw said that children may be separated at the border only if the adults with them present an immediate danger to the children.
He also said that adults may not be deported from the United States without their children.
“The facts set forth before the court portray reactive governance — responses to address a chaotic circumstance of the government’s own making,” the judge wrote in the opinion. “They belie measured and ordered governance, which is central to the concept of due process enshrined in our Constitution. This is particularly so in the treatment of migrants, many of whom are asylum seekers and small children.”
In a statement, Lee Gelernt, the lead lawyer in the case for the A.C.L.U., hailed the judge’s order.
“This is an enormous win and will mean that this humanitarian crisis is coming to an end,” Mr. Gelernt said. “We hope the Trump administration will not think about appealing when the lives of these little children are at stake.”
The A.C.L.U. lawsuit was initially brought on behalf of two cases in which the children of immigrants were taken from them after they crossed the border.
In one case, a woman entered the United States legally at a port of entry, fleeing persecution in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The lawsuit says that her 6-year-old daughter was taken from her and sent to a facility in Chicago, where she stayed for nearly five months.
In another case, a woman from Brazil, identified as “Ms. C,” crossed the border illegally with her 14-year-old son, who was separated from her and also sent to a facility in Chicago. The mother and son were apart for nearly eight months, according to the lawsuit.
“During the five months she was detained, Ms. C. did not see her son, and they spoke on the phone only ‘a handful of times,’” the lawsuit says. “Ms. C. was ‘desperate’ to be reunited with her son, worried about him constantly and did not know when she would be able to see him.”
Earlier Tuesday, seventeen states sued Mr. Trump for his administration’s practice of separating immigrant parents from their children, saying that the tactic is causing “devastating harm,” even as a top official said the government was struggling to reunite families fractured by the policy.
On a day when Mr. Trump basked publicly in the glow of a victory, with the Supreme Court upholding his travel ban, he faced a new legal challenge to what has emerged as the most controversial piece of his immigration agenda.
The states, including Washington, California and New York and joined by the District of Columbia, branded the forcible separation of immigrant families unconstitutional, “cruel and unlawful,” calling it a violation of the principles of due process and equal protection. They requested that the court halt it and immediately compel the government to reunite parents with their children.
The Trump administration says it is trying to do just that, but success has proved vexing. The administration has appeared unprepared for the fallout from its decision to prosecute every immigrant apprehended entering the country without authorization — including those who are seeking asylum — without exceptions for parents.
Even after Mr. Trump reversed course last week and moved to detain migrant parents facing charges of unlawful entry with their children, the challenge of reuniting families already torn apart has morphed into a crisis of its own.
Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, told senators on Tuesday that his department — which is charged with taking custody of undocumented unaccompanied minors — was having trouble figuring out how to care for the children it was holding who had been separated from their parents.
Some of them, he said, were in federal custody even though their parents had been sent back to Central America after trying to enter the United States illegally.
“As to any parent who’s deported, the child has independent rights,” Mr. Azar said during a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, where his plan to discuss prescription drug pricing was upended by a grilling over the separated families. “We often do find, when a parent is deported, that they ask the child to remain separate and remain in this country.”
Mr. Azar said his department is holding 2,047 separated children, only six fewer than it held last week when Mr. Trump signed the executive order.
Raj Shah, a White House spokesman, conceded that the process of reuniting families would be difficult. “This is a complex situation,” Mr. Shah told CNN in an interview. “Our goal is to fully reunite as many families as possible, as quickly as possible.”
Yet in the lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court in Seattle, the attorneys general for the states noted that Mr. Trump’s order last week did not apply to families already broken apart, nor did it prevent the tactic from being used in the future.
A top official at Customs and Border Protection said Monday that the agency would cease referring parents traveling with minor children for criminal prosecution in order to keep families together. But White House officials said Monday that the change was temporary and only being carried out because the government would soon run out of space and resources to detain families together.
Amid the chaos, the first lady, Melania Trump, who traveled last week to a facility housing undocumented children who had been separated from their parents at the border, has planned another such visit this week, according to a spokeswoman.
The president, emboldened by the Supreme Court’s validation of the travel ban, continued on Tuesday to rail against immigration laws that afford those fleeing danger and persecution in their home countries the chance to have their asylum claims adjudicated by a judge. “If they step on our land, they have judges — it’s insane,” Mr. Trump said. He said the United States should adopt stricter laws that send an unmistakable message that only immigrants who have special skills to boost the American economy should be allowed into the country.
“It’s called, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t come in. You have to go in through a legal process,’” Mr. Trump said of his approach, during a lunch at the White House with Republican members of Congress. “I have to let people come in, but they have to come in through a merit. They have to be people that can love our country and help our country.”
Vice President Mike Pence, traveling in Brazil, implored would-be immigrants not to attempt to cross the United States border without authorization.
“Don’t risk your lives or the lives of your children by trying to come to the United States on the road run by drug smugglers and human traffickers,” Mr. Pence said. “If you can’t come legally, don’t come at all.”
The lawsuit filed Tuesday took aim at the administration’s hostility toward asylum seekers, maintaining that officials at the border were violating the law by turning them away before they could reach a port of entry to lawfully make their claim or, in some cases, before detaining them and taking away their children.
“By criminalizing the pursuit of asylum, this policy runs counter to established immigration and refugee laws,” the lawsuit said.
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment about the legal challenge.
Yet even as Mr. Trump vented his anger about the current state of immigration laws, his on-again, off-again push for a legislative overhaul of immigration policy appeared headed for defeat. The House was poised to reject a broad immigration bill slated for a vote on Wednesday, a result that is likely to prompt lawmakers in that chamber to shift their focus to narrower legislation meant to ensure that families are kept together at the border.
If the broad overhaul fails, it would be the second time in a week that a wide-ranging immigration bill died in the House because of persistent divisions among Republican members and mixed signals from a president who is reluctant to be seen as suffering a defeat. The House voted down a hard-line immigration bill last week, with 41 Republicans joining Democrats in siding against the measure.
It was not clear on Tuesday whether the overhaul to be voted on this week — a compromise worked out by Republican moderates and conservatives — would fare any better.
The bill would provide a path to citizenship for the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, while keeping migrant families together at the border and providing billions of dollars for Mr. Trump’s promised wall on the southern border with Mexico. Democrats are expected to broadly oppose it, and many conservative Republicans are also expected to vote against the measure, which has been criticized from the right as “amnesty.”
Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin reiterated Tuesday that he wants migrant families to be kept together. But he held back from previewing how the House might take action if the broad legislation fails on Wednesday.
“I want to lean into that vote,” Mr. Ryan said, adding, “If that doesn’t succeed, then we’ll cross that bridge. But the last thing I want to do is undercut a vote on what is a great consensus bill.”
With the bill’s defeat all but certain, Republicans in the House appear ready to pursue a narrower measure on the issue of family separation.
“We want to make sure that’s addressed regardless,” said Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative members.
With the Fourth of July looming, it was not clear how quickly the House might be able to take action on that subject. The chamber is scheduled to finish its work for the week on Thursday and not return until July 10. Senators have also been pursuing stand-alone legislation intended to keep families together.
The broader immigration overhaul had first been scheduled for a vote in the House last Thursday. But Republican leaders delayed the vote until Friday, and then pushed it to this week, as they tried to grow its support in the chamber.
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