As a federal judge heard arguments on Thursday seeking to halt the deportations of several Central American women requesting asylum, he learned that a woman and her daughter at the center of the case had been ushered from a Texas shelter, driven to an airport and put on a plane to El Salvador. The judge ordered the government to bring the two back immediately.
The judge, Emmet G. Sullivan of the District of Columbia, criticized the government for deporting the pair just as they were seeking justice in court. In ordering the government to undo the deportation, he threatened to hold government officials, from Attorney General Jeff Sessions on down, in contempt, said a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Twelve women and children who are plaintiffs in the case, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against Mr. Sessions and several other administration officials, had been put on the fast track to deportation in the face of a directive from Mr. Sessions that fear of gangs and domestic violence would no longer be an acceptable basis for people to seek asylum in the United States.
Mr. Sessions’s decision in June blocked a major route for people seeking asylum and was poised to have an especially strong impact on Central American women, tens of thousands of whom have arrived at the border citing those fears in the past several years.
The lawsuit, known as Grace v. Sessions, argues that the policies cut against American and international laws that recognize gender-based persecution as grounds for asylum and that they gut the protections the process is supposed to offer.
By excluding gang and domestic violence as grounds for asylum, the directive makes it nearly impossible for some asylum seekers to move onto the second phase of the process. (Asylum seekers can still make arguments based on fear of persecution related to race, religion, nationality or political opinion, among other reasons.)
Mr. Sessions has said he believes the previous definition of who qualified for asylum was too broad; the A.C.L.U. argues that the bar to move past the initial phase of the asylum process is rightfully low, to give vulnerable, traumatized people a chance to make their cases.
“It’s depriving people of a meaningful opportunity to have their claims heard,” the A.C.L.U. attorney, Jennifer Chang Newell, said. “Congress deliberately made the standard a low one. Congress wouldn’t want women and children to be sent back to danger erroneously.”
Even before Mr. Sessions’s directive went into effect, the tens of thousands of Central Americans who have sought asylum from gang violence had not had much success in the immigration courts citing fear of gangs. Those who were granted asylum often obtained it on multiple grounds.
Four of the A.C.L.U. plaintiffs had already been deported, Ms. Chang Newell said, and the Salvadoran woman, known as Carmen, and her daughter were at imminent risk of being deported this week. The A.C.L.U. asked the judge to pause the deportation process and order the government to keep all the plaintiffs in the United States while the court considered the lawsuit. Justice Department lawyers assured the judge on Wednesday that no one would be deported before midnight on Thursday.
But halfway through the hearing in which Judge Sullivan was considering the A.C.L.U.’s request for a temporary halt to the deportations, the lawyers — first the A.C.L.U., then the government — got word that Carmen and her daughter had been woken in the middle of the night, taken from a government facility in Dilley, Tex. where they had been held since June, and put on a plane back to El Salvador.
According to the A.C.L.U., Carmen’s husband had regularly raped, stalked and threatened to kill her for two decades. But she never reported him to the police in El Salvador, having seen other women do so only to be killed by their husbands in retaliation. After she left her husband, taking her daughter with her, she claimed gang members in town targeted her as a single mother, threatening to kill her and her daughter unless she paid them a monthly sum.
When they arrived in the United States in June, they were detained and were set to be deported after failing to clear an initial screening by an asylum officer, known as a credible fear interview. An immigration judge, following the same ruling, reaffirmed the officer’s decision in July.
While the government offered no explanation for the surprise deportation, an official at the Department of Homeland Security said the pair would not get off the plane once it landed in El Salvador, but would be brought back to the United States immediately. Ms. Chang Newell said she had been told that they would return by Friday morning.
A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment.
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