A frustrated federal judge lashed the Trump administration Thursday and threatened to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt after being told the government had deported an asylum seeker despite clear assurances she wouldn’t be touched.
Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said the government had “spirited away” the woman and her child, sticking them on a place back to El Salvador early in the morning even though she was a plaintiff in a groundbreaking case aiming to overturn the administration’s new stricter asylum policy.
It was the latest black eye for the administration’s deportation machinery, which just weeks ago drew the ire of other judges after admitting hundreds of illegal immigrant parents were ousted from the country without their children during the chaos of the zero-tolerance border policy.
The courts are still trying to sort out that mess, but Judge Sullivan wasn’t about to let this latest snafu drag on.
“Turn that plane around,” he ordered, adding he would start holding officials in contempt of the court if they didn’t get the woman and her daughter back immediately.
“I’m gonna start with the attorney general,” he promised.
The government didn’t turn the plane around, but when it landed in El Salvador the mother and daughter were kept aboard while the rest of the deportees were taken off. Officials said the plane then flew back to the U.S. with the family.
Homeland Security officials declined to explain the bungle.
It was a wrong-footed start to yet another thorny legal battle for the administration, which was already arguing in court over its sanctuary city crackdown, its attempts to phase out the Obama-era DACA deportation amnesty, the border wall and cancellation of special protections for Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras.
This new battle is over the asylum policy Mr. Sessions announced in June, and the government lost the first round in court Thursday when Judge Sullivan ordered a stay of deportation for the plaintiffs — including the mother and daughter already deported — while he contemplates the bigger issues.
The plaintiffs say they have good claims for deserving asylum in the U.S., but say they’ve been denied under the administration’s stricter new policy.
Under that policy, which came in the form of a new legal precedent Mr. Sessions issued in June, asylum-seekers can no longer argue that domestic abuse or gang violence in their home countries is sufficient to get on the asylum track.
Mr. Sessions also ruled the asylum-seekers must prove their home governments either actively encouraged their persecution, or were so incapable that they were culpable.
He said the changes were meant to get the asylum system back to its original intent of providing protections to those fleeing government persecution for their race, religion, political beliefs or membership in some other protected class.
The new policy is being carried out both by asylum officers and immigration judges, leading to soeedy denials in cases where immigrant-rights advocates say they would clearly have been at least given the chance to make a full case.
The asylum system has become a major issue in the immigration debate as Central Americans are increasingly making asylum claims as a way of trying to immigrate to the U.S.
Security experts say they are exploiting loopholes and most of them will eventually be rejected. But that process can take years, and few of the asylum-seekers show up to be deported if they lost their cases.
Immigrant-rights groups, though, say the tens of thousands of people lodging asylum claims are mostly deserving — and at the very least should get a more extensive hearing.
“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,” said Jennifer Chang Newell, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the plaintiffs.
In the case of the mother and daughter wrongly deported Thursday — known in court papers as Carmen and J.A.C.F., respectively — they say they fled El Salvador to escape the woman’s husband, who she says raped and threatened to kill her over the course of two decades of marriage.
She also says four of her five co-workers were killed by a gang over the last year, and she fears she’s next. She never reported the abuse to the government because she figured her husband would kill her in retaliation.
But first an asylum officer and later an immigration judge rejected the asylum petition.
Another plaintiff, known in court papers only as Gina, said her brother was killed and her son maimed as part of a feud with a powerful family in Honduras. She says police are protecting that family, and she had no choice but to flee
Yet another woman, Mona, said her boyfriend, a soldier assigned to fight gangs, was gunned down by hoodlums while she watched. When she went to buy flowers for his funeral she was accosted and the gang threatened to kill her.
Both Gina and Mona have had their asylum claims rejected, and the ACLU said the explanation has to be Mr. Sessions’ new policy.
The Trump administration fought to preserve the right to deport the women, saying they can still argue their cases even if they’re back home.
“That’s the design of the system,” said Erez Reuveni, the Justice Department lawyer who argued the case Thursday.
Judge Sullivan has yet to reach the big questions of asylum policy, but did issue the temporary stay preventing the plaintiffs from being deported.