Originally published August 10, 2018 at 04:00a.m., updated August 10, 2018 at 04:00a.m.
WASHINGTON -- A federal judge in Washington halted a deportation in progress Thursday and threatened to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt after learning that President Donald Trump's administration started to remove a woman and her daughter while a court hearing appealing their deportations was underway.
"This is pretty outrageous," U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said after being told about the removal. "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," the judge continued. "This is not acceptable."
The woman, known in court papers as Carmen, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed this week by the American Civil Liberties Union. It challenges a recent policy change by the Department of Justice that aims to expedite the removal of asylum seekers who fail to prove their cases and excludes domestic and gang violence as justifications for granting asylum in the United States.
Attorneys for the civil-rights organization and the Department of Justice had agreed to delay removal proceedings for Carmen and her child until 11:59 p.m. Thursday so they could argue the matter in court.
But lead ACLU attorney Jennifer Chang Newell, who was participating in the court hearing via phone from her office in California, received an email during the hearing that said the mother and daughter were being deported.
During a brief recess, she told her colleagues the pair had been taken from a family detention center in Dilley, Texas, and were headed to the airport in San Antonio for an 8:15 a.m. flight.
After granting the ACLU's request to delay deportations for Carmen and the other plaintiffs until the lawsuit is decided, Sullivan 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 mother and daughter were on a flight to El Salvador. The Justice Department said they would be flown back to Texas and returned to the detention center after landing, the ACLU said.
"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," said Eunice Lee, who is co-counsel in the case and is co-legal director at the University of California-Hastings Center for Gender and Refugee Studies.
The Justice Department declined a request for comment.
To qualify for asylum, migrants must show that they have a fear of persecution in their native countries based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a "particular social group," a category that in the past has included victims of domestic violence and other abuse.
Carmen fled El Salvador with her daughter in June, according to court records, fearing they would be killed by gang members who had demanded she pay them money each month or suffer consequences. Several co-workers at the factory where Carmen worked had been murdered, and her husband is also abusive, the records state.
Under the fast-track removal system, created in 1996, asylum seekers are interviewed to determine whether they have a "credible fear" of returning home. Those who pass get a full hearing in immigration court.
In June, Sessions vacated a 2016 Board of Immigration Appeals court case that granted asylum to an abused woman from El Salvador. As part of that decision, Sessions said gang and domestic violence in most cases would no longer be grounds for receiving asylum.
The ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of 12 migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala -- three of them children -- all of whom failed their initial "credible fear" interviews.
Two of the children and their mothers were deported before the suit was filed. None of the adults had been separated from their children as part of Trump's zero-tolerance policy.
A Section on 08/10/2018
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