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Judge halts mother-daughter deportation, threatens to hold Sessions in contempt

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in Washington on April 25, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer.

WASHINGTON - A federal judge in Washington halted a deportation in progress Thursday and threatened to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt after learning that the Trump administration started to remove a woman and her daughter while a court hearing appealing their deportations was underway.

"This is pretty outrageous," U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said after being told about the removal. "That someone seeking justice in U.S. court is spirited away while her attorneys are arguing for justice for her?"

"I'm not happy about this at all," the judge continued. "This is not acceptable."

The woman, known in court papers as Carmen, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed this week by the American Civil Liberties Union. It challenges a recent policy change by the Justice Department that aims to expedite the removal of asylum seekers who fail to prove their cases and excludes domestic and gang violence as justifications for granting asylum in the United States.

Attorneys for the civil rights organization and the Justice Department had agreed to delay removal proceedings for Carmen and her child until 11:59 p.m. Thursday so they could argue the matter in court.

But lead ACLU attorney Jennifer Chang Newell, who was participating in the court hearing via phone from her office in California, received an email during the hearing that said the mother and daughter were being deported.

During a brief recess, she told her colleagues the pair had been taken from a family detention center in Dilley, Texas, to the airport in San Antonio for a morning flight.

After being informed of the situation, Sullivan granted the ACLU's request to delay deportations for Carmen and the other plaintiffs until the lawsuit is decided, and ordered the government to "turn the plane around."

Justice Department attorney Erez Reuveni said he had not been told the deportation was happening that morning and could not confirm the whereabouts of Carmen and her daughter.

The ACLU said later that government attorneys informed them after the hearing that the pair was on a flight to El Salvador.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, which implements deportations, did not respond to questions about why Carmen and her daughter were removed from the country.

"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 U.S. Department of Homeland Security official said Thursday evening.

To qualify for asylum, migrants must show that they have a fear of persecution in their native country based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a "particular social group," a category that in the past has included victims of domestic violence and other abuse.

Carmen fled El Salvador with her daughter in June, according to court records, fearing they would be killed by gang members who had demanded she pay them each month or suffer consequences. Several co-workers at the factory where Carmen worked had been murdered, and her husband is also abusive, the records state.

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