A mother and daughter deported to El Salvador on Thursday flew back to the United States hours after a federal judge ordered their return and threatened to hold top officials in contempt if they failed to comply with his order, U.S. officials and lawyers for the two said Friday.
The pair, who are among a dozen victims of gang and domestic violence fighting deportation after their asylum applications were rejected in recent weeks, were put on a flight from Houston, Texas, to El Salvador early Thursday, a day after government lawyers had assured the judge in Washington, D.C., that they'd hold off on the planned removal until midnight on Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan grew furious after being told by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union during a hearing on Thursday that the mother, known in court documents as "Carmen," and her daughter had been removed from their detention facility in South Texas and might be in the process of being deported from the country.
"Somebody in pursuit of justice in a United States court is just — is spirited away while her attorneys are arguing for justice for her?" the judge reportedly said.
Confirmation of flight
Government lawyers later confirmed to the court that the woman and her daughter "were in fact on an airplane while the court was hearing argument on Plaintiffs' Emergency Motion," according to court documents.
The judge then blocked the deportation of the asylum seekers and issued a stern order, "requiring the defendants to return Carmen and her daughter to the United States FORTHWITH."
"Carmen" and her daughter are plaintiffs in a lawsuit, filed by the ACLU and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, seeking to block the deportation of immigrants fleeing domestic and gang violence. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen are among four defendants named in the lawsuit. Sullivan threatened to hold them in contempt of court if they failed to comply with his order to return the woman and her daughter to the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security immediately complied. "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 DHS official said Thursday evening.
A Justice Department official said the two arrived back in Houston at 5:20 p.m. local time and were returned to the Dilley South Texas Family Residential Center, a facility run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, around 11 p.m. or midnight local time.
The case highlights how rights advocates are increasingly turning to the courts to block the Trump administration's immigration policies, including efforts to crack down on illegal immigration from Central America.
'Horrific sexual abuse'
According to the lawsuit, Carmen and her young daughter fled El Salvador "to escape two decades of horrific sexual abuse by her husband and death threats from a violent gang."
"Carmen's husband routinely raped, stalked and threatened her with death, treating her as his property, even after they were living apart," the complaint reads.
She never reported the threats to the police because she believed police did not protect women in El Salvador. She also feared that she and her daughter would be killed by a violent gang that had recently held her at gunpoint to demand a "tax."
In June, Carmen and her daughter arrived in Texas to seek asylum. According to the lawsuit, despite testifying credibly, both mother and daughter failed to pass their initial "credible fear" interviews on June 29. An immigration judge affirmed the decision on July 23.
Then on Wednesday, the ACLU got word that Carmen and her daughter were "subject to imminent removal as soon as 11:59 p.m. Thursday." That set in motion a sequence of events that led to their deportation and quick return to the South Texas facility where they've been held since June.