An angry federal judge ordered a plane carrying a mother and her daughter to turn around and head back to the United States, hours after being whisked away by U.S. authorities before a court hearing on their deportation status could be finished.
"I know I'm raising my voice, but I'm extremely upset about this," U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan said during Thursday's hearing. "Somebody … seeking justice in a United States court is spirited away while her attorneys are arguing for justice for her? It’s outrageous. Turn that plane around and bring those people back to the United States."
A Department of Homeland Security official said the agency has complied with the court’s order. By Thursday evening, the mother and her daughter had landed in El Salvador. But they did not disembark, and the plane immediately headed back to Texas, the DHS official said.
Had the family not been returned, Sullivan was prepared to order Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other senior administration officials to appear in court "to show cause why they should not be held in contempt of court."
The mother in the case, identified in court papers only as "Carmen," is at the center of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which challenges a decision by Sessions to exclude domestic and gang violence as reasons for immigrants to be granted asylum.
Sullivan, who sits on the U.S. court in the District of Columbia, threatened to hold Sessions in contempt of court.
The lawsuit seeks a stay of removal for immigrants who, the ACLU argues, could face "grave danger of being raped, beaten, or killed" in their home countries if they are forced to return to them.
"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," said the ACLU's lead attorney on the case, Jennifer Chang Newell. "We will not rest until our clients are returned to safety."
The ACLU's lawsuit says Carmen and her daughter left their native El Salvador because they feared for their lives amid extortion attempts by gang members. Some of Carmen's friends and co-workers have already been murdered, the ACLU claims.
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.
Named in the ACLU's lawsuit are Sessions, Nielsen, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Lee Cissna and Executive Office for Immigration Review Director James McHenry.
Homeland Security's "credible fear" policy instructs authorities to deny asylum to immigrants fleeing domestic abuse and gang violence. Critics have blasted the new policy as an affront to human rights and a systemic attack on immigrant women.
A “credible fear” interview is a threshold screening that determines whether there is a “significant possibility” that an immigrant could show they are eligible for asylum in a full hearing with evidence, witnesses and appeals. If so, they get that chance; if not, they are quickly removed from the United States, according to the ACLU.