By Lewis Kamb

As expected, Washington's Attorney General Bob Ferguson has challenged the Trump administration in court over its policy to forcibly separate immigrant families, contending in a lawsuit filed on behalf of 17 states and the District of Columbia Tuesday that President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy violates constitutional due-process rights of parents and children and runs afoul of federal asylum laws.

"This case, like all our cases against this Administration, says something important about who we are as a people," Ferguson is quoted as saying in a prepared statement that announced the lawsuit had been filed. "We will stand up for the Constitution, basic decency and fundamental American values. My office has not yet lost a lawsuit to the Trump Administration, and we do not intend to lose this one."

A spokesman for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., declined comment Tuesday.

The 128-page legal complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, describes the administration's practice of refusing asylum and separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border as a "cruel and unlawful policy" that already has resulted in the separation of more than 2,000 immigrant children and infants from their parents. The suit contends children have been "left to languish in makeshift detention facilities -- where staff are sometimes told not to comfort them -- until a placement is found for the child."

"No law or court decision requires such separation," the suit states. "Rather, Defendants have chosen to adopt the Policy as part of their 'zero tolerance' or '100 percent prosecution' approach to individuals who enter the country unlawfully, irrespective of circumstances, and to then use such misdemeanor criminal charges to detain parents indefinitely in federal facilities that cannot accommodate families."

The lawsuit asks the federal court to declare the practice of denying asylum-seekers entry and separating immigrant families illegal and order the administration "to stop implementing them immediately." It also asks the court to order the United States "to reunite every family separated by these unlawful acts immediately."

Despite Trump's signing an executive order June 20 that purportedly suspends the family separation policy, the lawsuit contends "any relief offered by the Order is illusory."

"The Order says nothing about reuniting the families already ripped apart by the federal government, and Trump Administration officials have made clear the Order will have no impact on the thousands of families who have already been traumatized," the lawsuit states.

Facing mounting pressure, Trump signed the executive order to roll back family separations and instead called on federal immigration-enforcement authorities to "maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources."

Trump and his administration have blamed Congress for failing to act to fix immigration laws and putting "the Administration in the position of separating alien families to effectively enforce the law," according the order.

Trump's order also directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to file a request with the U.S. District of California to modify its 1997 "Flores" consent decree that holds that children can be detained in confinement for no more than 20 days. In 2014, President Obama also tried to hold immigrant families together indefinitely, though that policy was found in violation of the consent decree.

Last week, when Ferguson announced that he intended to file the lawsuit, he took the position that Trump's executive order was meaningless because, among other things, it depends on passage of a congressional appropriation that may never happen as well as a judge's ruling to change the Flores decree.

Other states joining Washington in the suit are Oregon, California, Massachusetts, Delaware, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.

The lawsuit comes a day after the nonprofit Northwest Immigrant Rights Project sued the Trump administration on behalf of three Central American women held in federal custody in Washington state, contending it is unnecessarily prolonging the separation of asylum-seeking immigrants from their children. That suit seeks class-action status on behalf of dozens of other immigrants separated from their children and detained in Washington state.

(c)2018 The Seattle Times