Demonstrators hold signs and gather during a protest against the Trump administration’s policy on separating immigrant families. (Photographer: Cedric von Niederhausern/Bloomberg)

Sessions, Nielsen Ordered to Face Judge If Deportation Not Reversed

(Bloomberg) -- A federal judge ordered U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to personally appear before him if the government fails to return a mother and her daughter who were deported to El Salvador even as the judge was considering their fate.

That apparently got some wheels in motion and by late Thursday, the government confirmed that the plane carrying the pair -- who applied for asylum to escape what the mother described as horrific domestic abuse and death threats from a violent gang -- returned them to the U.S.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington took the extraordinary step of holding two members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet personally accountable after Sullivan learned that even while a hearing in the matter was underway Thursday afternoon, immigration authorities had already put the mother and daughter on an airplane.

The judge’s threat to hold Sessions and Nielsen in contempt of court if they didn’t comply with his order is the latest fallout over the Trump administration’s push to deport undocumented immigrants as quickly as possible.

On Wednesday, the union representing the nation’s immigration judges warned that Sessions was threatening the judiciary’s independence - and pointed to a case in which he personally interceded to replace one immigration judge with another to speed up an individual deportation of a Guatemalan man.

The government has also come under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union for deporting hundreds of parents before they could be reunited with children who had been taken from them during President Donald Trump’s short-lived “zero tolerance” border crossing crackdown.

The removal process for the El Salvadorian mother and daughter was supposed to be delayed for Sullivan to conduct an emergency hearing Thursday on their appeal. Government lawyers “specifically represented to the court that ‘Carmen’ and her daughter would not be removed prior” to 11:59 p.m. on Thursday, Sullivan said in an order he issued later in the day.

But during a recess in the case, ACLU lawyers were told that Carmen and her daughter had already been taken from a family detention center in Dilley, Texas, and were headed for the airport to be deported. Sullivan then ordered the government to "turn the plane around," according to a transcript of the hearing.

‘Pretty Outrageous’

"This is pretty outrageous," Sullivan said, according to the transcript. "Somebody in pursuit of justice who has alleged a credible fear in her mind and is seeking justice in United States court is just spirited away while her attorneys are arguing for justice for her? It’s outrageous"

Sullivan later issued a ruling directing Sessions and Nielsen to appear in his courtroom with their lawyers if they don’t comply with his order to return the immigrants.

“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 homeland security official told Bloomberg news.

The case stems from a suit brought this week by two civil rights groups that accuse the Trump Administration of fast-tracking deportation policies while gutting asylum protections for immigrants fleeing domestic and gang violence.

The ACLU and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies sought an emergency hearing to halt the deportation of the woman, identified by the pseudonym "Carmen," and her young daughter. The woman fled her home in El Salvador to escape two decades of sexual abuse by her husband, according to the ACLU’s complaint, which also said that gang members warned Carmen that unless she paid them a monthly "tax" they would kill her and her little girl.

Their application for asylum was initially rejected in June in a decision that was upheld last month by an immigration judge.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.