A federal judge in Washington, D.C., has threatened to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen in contempt of court if they fail to return to the U.S. a mother and daughter seeking asylum. The immigrants were deported ahead of a scheduled hearing with the court on Thursday.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan also blocked the Trump administration from deporting eight other immigrants — currently held in detention — who are part of the same lawsuit against the government for allegedly wrongfully rejecting their claims for asylum.
The order issued Thursday stated that the defendants, including Sessions, Nielsen, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service Director Lee Francis Cissna and Executive Office of Immigration Review Director James McHenry, "shall return 'Carmen' and her daughter to the United States FORTHWITH."
Carmen is a pseudonym to protect the woman's identity.
Court documents chronicle a sequence of events that appear to have outraged Sullivan and initiated the unusual order to return the pair to the U.S.
The judge had scheduled Thursday's emergency hearing on the motion to block the deportation after learning of their imminent removal on Aug. 9. The government agreed that Carmen and her daughter "would not be removed prior to that time."
But despite the government's guarantee, Sullivan learned from the American Civil Liberties Union in open court that the two had been removed from the Dilley South Texas Family Residential Center. It wasn't until after the hearing that the government confirmed in an email that the two plaintiffs "were, in fact, on an airplane while the Court was hearing arguments" on their case.
As a result, the order states, "The Court informed government counsel that it would neither tolerate nor excuse any delay with compliance with this Order."
The lawsuit — involving a group of asylum-seekers still in custody and others already deported — was filed Tuesday by the ACLU and Center for Gender & Refugee Studies.
It argues the administration is wrongly rejecting asylum claims based on domestic abuse and gang violence. The ACLU is asking the court to invalidate a decision by Sessions that says most victims of domestic abuse and gang violence cannot qualify for asylum.
"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, Jennifer Chang Newell, managing attorney with the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, 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."
The Trump administration's position is that many asylum-seekers are gaming the system by exaggerating their fear of returning home.
In the event that the government does not "fully comply" with Sullivan's order to return Carmen and her daughter from El Salvador, the judge said, Sessions, Nielsen, Cissna and McHenry must appear in court to "SHOW CAUSE why they should not be held in CONTEMPT OF COURT."
Sullivan directed the administration to give him a status update by Friday afternoon.