Maryland to join lawsuit against White House over migrant family crisis as policy confusion deepens

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said Thursday that he would join a multistate lawsuit seeking to compel the Trump administration to reunite 2,300 children with their parents after families were broken up by immigration agents at the Southwest Border.

It remained unclear what the federal government planned to do to help those children despite President Donald Trump’s executive order Wednesday that he said would end family separations. Federal agencies also provided little information about how newly arriving immigrants would be handled.

Frosh said the uncertainty meant the courts had to step in to halt the separations and order the government to pursue all possible efforts to reunite families.

“It’s a disgrace for the United States of America to engage in this kind of conduct,” the Democratic attorney general said. “It hurts the most vulnerable people in the world, little children, and the harm is going to be in many cases irreparable.”

The ongoing confusion in Washington ensured the humanitarian and political crisis would continue as government officials, attorneys and immigration advocates scrambled to understand and implement Trump’s revised policy.

Numerous officials throughout the administration declined to answer questions about how, when or whether family reunifications would take place. Not only was the public being left in the dark, but members of Congress complained that they were failing to get answers from the Department of Health and Human Services, a problem that has persisted since the separation crisis began.

First Lady Melania Trump, who privately urged the president to reverse his controversial family separation policy, made a surprise visit to the Upbring New Hope Children’s Shelter in McAllen, Texas. The facility currently holds roughly 55 migrant children, mostly from Guatemala, including six who had been separated from their parents, officials said.

She toured the facility and met for slightly more than an hour with officials and some of the children, seeking answers about what would happen to them.

“I’m here to learn about your facility,” she said during a conversation with officials inside the shelter. “I’m also here to ask you how I can help to reunite these children with their families as quickly as possible.”

While the children were initially being held near where they were taken into custody at the border, many have now been scattered to 17 states by the federal health department. It was not clear where all of them were.

Dozens of children — the youngest just 18 months old — are being placed with foster families or held in dormitories in the Baltimore area, according to accounts from organizations working with the children. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service said it had placed 20 children with foster families in Maryland. Catholic Charities said it helped place one child with relatives in Howard County and was working on seven other cases.

Frosh said he was trying to gather more detailed information about how many of the children had been sent to Maryland and where they were being cared for, but said neither the state or federal government had provided any information.

“We don’t have names and faces or places,” Frosh said. “It’s just so staggeringly inhumane and unprecedented that we’re doing everything we can to get to the bottom of it.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan didn’t respond to a request for comment. Maryland authorities say they are not involved in the process of sending undocumented children to the state.

Frosh said he was joining the lawsuit, which is being spearheaded by Washington state’s attorney general, because some of the children were in Maryland and unable to advocate for themselves. The complaint is expected to be filed in court on Tuesday.

Family separations had been happening in isolated cases in the past but in May the Justice Department announced a “zero tolerance” policy that led to immigrants being charged with criminal offenses. As a result, they were separated from their children. Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday designed to allow families to be kept together, but it was not clear how the new policy would work.

Frosh said Trump’s order left too many questions unanswered.

“When you read the executive order, it’s clear they don't have a plan to reunite the families,” Frosh said. “There’s nothing in that executive order that guarantees either that they’re going to stop or that they’re going to reunite the families.”

The lawsuit will ask a judge to order the government to not separate families and to reunite families that already had been divided.

Even with the best intentions, reunification will not be easy due to the web of competing bureaucracies and the unusual nature of the Trump administration’s separation policy. Children have been placed in detention facilities overseen by a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, while their parents are being held by the U.S. Marshals Service.

“Those systems are not linked,” said Megan McKenna, spokeswoman for Kids in Need of Defense, a legal aid group that assists immigrant children. “So it’s kind of an ad hoc process.”

Each family member apprehended at the border is given an alien number by the Department of Homeland Security when they are taken into custody, but individuals’ numbers are not linked to their relatives, McKenna said.

The Trump administration sought approval from the courts for its new approach, asking for an exemption from an Obama-era ruling that limited how long families with children could be kept in immigration detention.

Justice Department lawyers went to federal court in Los Angeles to ask for “limited emergency relief” that would allow immigration officials to “detain alien minors who have arrived with their parent or legal guardian together in [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] family residential facilities.”

The change in the rules is justified because of the “ongoing and worsening influx of families unlawfully entering the United States at the southwest border,” the lawyers told the court. Under current rules, the government can hold children for no more than 20 days, Justice Department officials say.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

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