Washington and 16 other states want to know if separated immigrant children are living in their states.
Washington and 16 other states want to know if separated immigrant children are living in their states. SPENCER PLATT / GETTY

Telling lawyers for the Trump Administration “we need to find out where these children are,” a federal judge in Seattle ordered the federal government to turn over information about separated immigrant families to Washington and other states.

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In June, Washington led a lawsuit of 17 states and the District of Columbia challenging the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant parents and children entering the country illegally, some of them fleeing violence and seeking asylum. The suit argues the policy is unconstitutional.

Another case, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in a federal court in California, has forced the government to begin reunifying families. On Thursday, the deadline for the government to reunite families, the Trump Administration said it had reunited most families.

However, at least 711 parents were deemed ineligible for reunification because they have criminal records, have already been deported, waived their right to reunification, or other issues. Now, Washington wants more information about those families, particularly the children.

Some of those children are staying in facilities or foster homes. In those cases, “those are state residents with whom these traumatized children are living,” Washington State Assistant Attorney General Laura Clinton said in court Friday. "These people are in our communities."

Washington State Solicitor General Noah Purcell told reporters Friday separated immigrant children are "going to be going to public schools, they’re going to be going to public health clinics, they’re going to be needing a variety of services because of the trauma they’ve suffered. We want to know where they are, what’s happening to them, and if we can we want to try to minimize any ongoing harm that they’re suffering.”

The state won a partial victory in that effort Friday.

Judge Marsha Pechman ordered the federal government to provide Washington with the same information it’s already handed over in the California case, including a list of between 1,600 and 1,700 adults who were separated from their children. Pechman also ordered the federal government to provide Washington with information about the nonprofit organizations involved in reunifying families, including what kind of information those groups have about where the adults and children are. The federal government has until Tuesday to provide the information.

But it's unclear whether that will answer the states' central question about where the 700 children are. The judge did not order the government to hand over any specific information about the children. The two sides will meet in court again on August 8. There, the states can again argue they need more information.

The proceedings in Seattle Friday underscored the federal government’s disorganized process for reuniting families.

In arguing that they shouldn’t have to turn over the information, lawyers for the federal government claimed that tracking down data for Washington and other states could delay their efforts to reunify families under the order in the California case. Judge Pechman was unconvinced.

“We’re talking about the federal government here,” she said. “The data that you’re looking for doesn’t seem so complicated. It is the federal government. Come on.”

“This is not rocket science,” Pechman continued later. “You could hire some very smart college kids to open up the [file of immigrant names] and look at the data… You’re talking to me like it’s typewriters and carbon paper and index cards. It can’t be that hard.”

In response, Department of Justice lawyer August Flentje told the judge “a lot of it is paper files.”

Lawyers for the federal government also argued the California case will ensure families are reunited, making Washington’s case unnecessary. “There is going to be an ongoing and very fast process issued by [the judge in the California case] about all of these individuals,” Flentje said.

But Washington’s case is broader than just the reunification of families. It also challenges the administration’s ongoing policies.

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Along with information about the separated families, the states have requested documents showing the government’s justification for separating families and then later detaining them together. They also want copies of any directives given to employees who had to implement those policies and directives given to border agents about allegations that agents have turned away asylum seekers at ports of entry.

Purcell, the state solicitor general, said the Attorney General’s Office has concerns the policies are ongoing, despite the Trump Administration’s claim that it has stopped separating families at the border.

“We need to know,” Purcell said. “Is this really even over?”

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