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SAN DIEGO — A federal judge has allowed a lawsuit challenging U.S. immigration authorities for separating parents from their children to go forward, but said he would decide later whether to order a nationwide halt to the policy.
Judge Dana Sabraw of the Southern District of California in San Diego said on Wednesday that the lawsuit, involving a 7-year-old girl who was separated from her Congolese mother and a 14-year-old boy who was separated from his Brazilian mother, could proceed on a claim that their constitutional rights to a fair hearing were denied.
Both women were seeking asylum and were detained after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
Sabraw said he would issue separate rulings on the American Civil Liberties Union's request for a nationwide injunction and to expand the lawsuit to apply to all parents and children who are split up by border authorities.
Sabraw, an appointee of President George W. Bush, said the allegations "describe government conduct that arbitrarily tears at the sacred bond between parent and child."
"Such conduct, if true, as it is assumed to be on the present motion, is brutal, offensive, and fails to comport with traditional notions of fair play and decency," he wrote.
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Splitting families has emerged as a high-profile and highly controversial practice since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a "zero tolerance" policy at the U.S.-Mexico border in early May. Adults charged with improper entry — a misdemeanor on the first infraction — are jailed and separated from their children. Previously, most parents had been allowed to remain with their children in family shelters while awaiting the outcome of asylum cases or deportation proceedings.
The zero-tolerance policy has thrust family separation to the forefront of a national divide over illegal immigration. Critics call it cruel and inhumane, while administration officials argue that it is an unwanted but necessary step to end what they describe as a border crisis.
The policy targets people with few or no previous offenses for illegally entering the country. First-time offenders face up to six months in prison, though they often spend only a few days in custody after pleading guilty and exposing themselves to more serious charges if they are caught again.