A federal judge threatened Attorney General Jeff Sessions with contempt of court on Thursday after the government broke a promise not to deport a mother and daughter fleeing gang and domestic violence in El Salvador until the judge had a chance to rule on their case.
“Turn that plane around,” U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan reportedly told the government after learning that it had deported a pair of plaintiffs, Carmen and her daughter J.A.C.F.
“We are complying with the court’s order, and upon arrival in El Salvador, the plaintiffs will not disembark and will be promptly returned to the United States,” the Homeland Security Department responded in a statement.
The ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of 12 immigrants against Sessions’ recently announced ruling making it harder for domestic and gang violence victims to seek asylum. The group said that the government had issued “assurances in open court [on Wednesday] that no plaintiff would be deported before midnight [Thursday].”
The Washington Post reported on the dramatic events that led the ACLU to discover that two of their clients had been deported in contravention of the government’s promise:
[L]ead 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, Tex., 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.
Four of the plaintiffs had already been deported, but on Thursday Judge Sullivan issued an order enjoining the government from deporting the eight remaining ones, including Carmen and J.A.C.F.
The case of Carmen and J.A.C.F. demonstrates the cruelty of Sessions’ decision in June to unilaterally overturn a Board of Immigration Appeals ruling that had granted domestic violence survivors the opportunity to apply for asylum on the basis of persecution for “membership in a particular social group.” That board had determined in 2014 that women in a certain country who are unable to leave abusive relationships counted as such a group for asylum seeking purposes, but Sessions’ overturned that decision.
Here’s how Carmen and J.A.C.F.’s case is described in the ACLU lawsuit:
Carmen’s husband routinely raped, stalked, and threatened her with death, treating her as his property, even after they were living apart. … Carmen also fears that she and her daughter would be killed by a violent gang, who targeted her because she was a vulnerable single mother living alone with her child, and because she had a good factory job. They held her up at gunpoint in May 2018 when she was on her way home from work and demanded that she pay a monthly “tax,” making clear that they would kill her little girl if she did not comply. The gang also threatened to kill her if she went to the police. Because four or five of her co-workers were killed by the same gang in the past year, she knew the threats were serious and fled with J.A.C.F. to avoid death.
“This is pretty outrageous,” Judge Sullivan said, according to the Post, upon learning that the pair had been sent back to El Salvador. “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,” he continued. “This is not acceptable.”
Carmen and J.A.C.F. are exactly the type of asylum seekers who would have had the opportunity to pursue their cases under the previous regime. The ACLU says that they were “found to have testified credibly” in their credible fear interview in June, but rejected anyway, apparently because of Sessions’ earlier ruling. That rejection was affirmed by an immigration judge last month.
Now, though, the pair are apparently to be returned to the United States where Judge Sullivan, a Bill Clinton appointee, will rule on their eligibility for asylum and on Sessions’ decision to overturn the previous policy.
“In its rush to deport as many immigrants as possible, the Trump administration is putting these women and children in grave danger of being raped, beaten, or killed,” Chang Newell said in a statement. “We are thrilled the stay of removal was issued but sickened that the government deported two of our clients—a mom and her little girl—in the early morning hours. We will not rest until our clients are returned to safety.”
One more thing
If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus