In a federal courtroom in Washington on Thursday, a judge heard about something the Trump administration had just done that clearly angered him. The government, he learned, had deported an immigrant mother and daughter who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit the judge was hearing over asylum restrictions.
So the judge did something highly unusual: He demanded the administration turn around the plane carrying the plaintiffs to Central America and bring them back to the United States. And he ordered the government to stop removing plaintiffs in the case from the country who are seeking protection from gang and domestic violence.
The jurist did something else out of the ordinary: He stated that if the government did not comply, "Attorney General Jefferson Sessions, III; Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service Director Lee Francis Cissna; and Executive Office of Immigration Review Director James McHenry, preferably accompanied by their attorneys, shall be ORDERED to appear in Court to SHOW CAUSE why they should not be held in CONTEMPT OF COURT ... "
The U.S. district judge, Emmet Sullivan, of the District of Columbia, was presiding over a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Center for Gender and Refugee Studies on Tuesday. He had earlier been assured by the government in open court that no plaintiffs in the suit would be deported before midnight Friday.
The plaintiffs on the plane are identified in the lawsuit as Carmen and her minor daughter J.A.C.F., although Carmen is a pseudonym, an attorney said.
The plane was not able to turn around en route, but a Department of Homeland Security official told NBC News that the mother and daughter did not disembark in El Salvador Thursday evening and were being brought to the United States.
"Carmen and her daughter are right now somewhere in the air between Texas and El Salvador," ACLU's lead attorney in the case Jennifer Chang Newell told NBC News just after the hearing.
The lawsuit challenges a decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to exclude domestic and gang violence as reasons for immigrants to be granted asylum. The ACLU sought a stay of removal for its plaintiffs.
"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," Newell said.
"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," she said.
The woman identified as Carmen had left El Salvador with her young daughter, fleeing two decades of "horrific" sexual abuse by her husband who routinely stalked and threatened her, even after they were living apart, according to the lawsuit. Carmen, a single mother, also faced imminent death threats from a notoriously violent gang, the complaint said.
If the ACLU succeeds in the lawsuit, the asylum restrictions ordered by Sessions could be deemed unlawful.
In a status report to the U.S. District Court in San Diego on Thursday, the Trump administration updated its figures on its efforts to reunite children separated from migrant parents at the border. The separations, believed to be a cornerstone of the president's zero-tolerance immigration policy, were halted following widespread condemnation.
Of 2,551 separated children, 559 are still apart from their parents, 386 of whom have been deported, according to the report. Officials have heard from 299 of the parents abroad in the last week.
But the government, represented in the filing by the U.S. Department of Justice, stated that it has essentially lost track of the deported parents of 26 separated kids.
Federal Judge Dana Sabraw had ordered the Trump administration to file a plan about how it will reunify children and deported parents, but the deadline was blown. The DOJ filing states the plan “is undergoing final review and will be filed with the Court shortly."