A federal judge on Thursday stopped the deportations of an asylum-seeking woman and her young daughter who were already aboard a plane to El Salvador, criticizing the Trump administration for trying to remove them while they were challenging their cases in court.
In Washington, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who was appointed by President
in 1994, threatened to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt of court if U.S. officials didn’t immediately return the pair to the U.S.
“It’s outrageous,” Judge Sullivan said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “I’m also directing the government to turn that plane around either now or when it lands, turn that plane around and bring those people back to the United States.”
An official at the Department of Homeland Security said the agency was complying with the judge’s order. “Upon arrival in El Salvador, the plaintiffs didn’t disembark and are currently en route back to the United States,” the official said. They were back in the U.S. on Thursday night.
The back-and-forth was the latest wrinkle in the administration’s immigration crackdown, coming as part of a lawsuit taking aim at a policy that says victims of domestic violence in their home countries don’t automatically qualify for asylum in the U.S.
The woman, known as Carmen in the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, was among several immigrants challenging the policy.
The administration argues that the country cannot grant asylum to people who are the victims of individual crimes, rather than targets of broader political or social persecution. The ACLU says the new policy would consign many to violence and abuse in their own countries.
The government had agreed not to deport Carmen and her daughter before 11:59 p.m. on Thursday, but the judge learned Thursday morning that the pair was already on a plane back to Central America.
He ordered the woman and her daughter to be immediately returned to the U.S., saying it was unacceptable that immigrants who alleged credible fear should be “spirited away” while their attorneys argued their cases.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
Carmen and her daughter fled their home in El Salvador seeking refuge from years of sexual abuse by her husband and death threats from a gang, the ACLU said in its lawsuit. They two had been held at a South Texas residential center.
“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,” ACLU lawyer Jennifer Chang Newell said.
Other Trump administration immigration policies remain tangled in the courts. The administration implemented a “zero-tolerance” policy this spring on illegal border crossings, resulting in children being separated from their parents when they were arrested at the border.
President Trump’s executive order ending the separations, and a judge’s demand that families be quickly reunited, have sent agencies scrambling. Court hearings in that case continue.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego gave the government until late July to reunite families, and more than 1,800 children were reunited by the deadline.
Government lawyers said Thursday in a filing to Judge Sabraw that of the 2,551 children ages 5 to 17 originally identified as being separated from families, 559 remain in the government’s care.
Judge Sabraw has expressed alarm at parents who were deported without their children; the government said in the filing that 386 children have been identified whose parents are outside the country and that they are still working on a plan to get those children back to their parents.
The updates came in a case filed by the ACLU challenging the administration’s separation policy.
Other immigration-policy challenges filed around the country are flowing into Judge Sabraw’s courtroom.
Wednesday, a federal judge in Seattle sent a case to Judge Sabraw filed by Washington, California, the District of Columbia and 15 other states alleging the family separation policy violates the due process and equal protection rights of parents and their children.
Separately Wednesday, Judge Sabraw heard arguments in another lawsuit now before him, claiming children have been deprived of their rights to file asylum claims once they are reunified with their parents.
Scott Stewart, an attorney for the Justice Department, told Judge Sabraw on Wednesday that the judge’s order restricting deportations of reunited families while the court case continues is “beginning to hamper ICE operations” and creating “potential unrest.” He urged the court to centralize and resolve all the legal claims as swiftly as possible.
—Sara Randazzo contributed to this article.
Write to Sadie Gurman at [email protected]