A federal judge stopped an in-progress deportation Thursday and threatened to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt after learning a plane carrying a mother and daughter was airborne and headed to El Salvador — all while a hearing appealing their deportations was taking place, the Washington Post reported.
“This is pretty outrageous,” U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said after he was informed about the flight, the Post said. “That someone seeking justice in U.S. court is spirited away while her attorneys are arguing for justice for her?”
“I’m not happy about this at all,” Sullivan added, the paper said. “This is not acceptable.”
American Civil Liberties Union attorneys and the Justice Department agreed to delay removal proceedings for the mother — named only “Carmen” on documents — and her child until 11:59 p.m. Thursday so the matter could be argued in court, the Post said.
But lead ACLU attorney Jennifer Chang Newell — taking part in the Washington court hearing via phone from her California office — got an email saying the mother and daughter were being deported, the paper reported.
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During a brief recess, she told her colleagues the pair had been taken from a family detention center in Dilley, Texas, to the airport in San Antonio for a morning flight.
After being informed of the situation, Sullivan granted the ACLU’s request to delay deportations for Carmen and the other plaintiffs until the lawsuit is decided, and ordered the government to “turn the plane around.”
Justice Department attorney Erez Reuveni said he had not been told the deportation was happening that morning and could not confirm the whereabouts of Carmen and her daughter.
The ACLU said later that government attorneys informed them after the hearing that the pair was on a flight to El Salvador.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, which implements deportations, did not respond to questions about why Carmen and her daughter were removed from the country.
“In compliance with the court’s order, upon arrival in El Salvador, the plaintiffs did not disembark and were promptly returned to the United States,” a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official said Thursday evening, the paper reported.
What do we know about Carmen?
Carmen fled El Salvador with her daughter in June fearing they would be killed by gang members who demanded she pay them each month or suffer consequences, the Post said, citing court records. Several co-workers at the factory where Carmen worked had been murdered, and her husband is also abusive, the paper added, citing records.
“It must have been absolutely terrifying for them to think they would be returning to a country where they raised very credible claims of persecution and death,” Eunice Lee — co-counsel for the plaintiffs and co-legal director at the University of California at Hastings’s Center for Gender and Refugee Studies — told the paper. “It’s outrageous to me that while we were working around the clock, filing briefings for this case’s early morning hearing, that people in the government were actively arranging for Carmen’s deportation.”
The Justice Department declined a request for comment, the Post reported.
What about the ACLU lawsuit?
Carmen also is a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit filed this week challenging a recent Justice Department policy change that aims to speed up removal of asylum-seekers who fail to prove their cases, the paper said, and that domestic and gang violence aren’t reasons for getting asylum.
“The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes — such as domestic violence or gang violence — or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim,” Sessions wrote in June, the paper noted.
Migrants must show they have a fear of persecution in their native country based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a “particular social group” — and in the past the latter included victims of domestic violence and other abuse, the Post said.
The fast-track removal system, created in 1996, has asylum-seekers interviewed to determine if they have a “credible fear” of returning to their home countries, the paper said, adding that those who pass get a full hearing in immigration court.
The ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of 12 people from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — three of them children — all who failed their initial “credible fear” interviews, the Post reported.
The suit says asylum-seekers previously had to show that the government in their native country was “unable or unwilling” to protect them — but now they have to show the government “condones” the violence or “is completely helpless” to protect them.