Federal Judges Criticize DOJ's Handling Of Deportation, Consider Contempt Finding | New Hampshire Public Radio

Federal Judges Criticize DOJ's Handling Of Deportation, Consider Contempt Finding

Jul 28, 2020

Judges on the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals are expressing frustration with the Department of Justice after it deported a man despite the court’s ruling that he could stay in the U.S. pending an appeal. 

Jose Daniel Guerra-Castaneda was detained by ICE officials after his name appeared on an international wanted list related to an outstanding murder charge in his native El Salvador. He was held for a period in the Strafford County House of Corrections in Dover, New Hampshire.

Guerra-Castaneda’s lawyers, including the ACLU of New Hampshire, argued he shouldn’t be returned to El Salvador because of the likelihood that he would face possible torture at the hands of the government. 

On September 11, 2019, a federal judge ruled that he could remain in the U.S. pending an appeal. However, two days later ICE deported Guerra-Castaneda in direct violation of the court’s order. The Department of Justice blamed a lag in an ICE database for the mistake.

On Monday, the ACLU told the court that Guerra-Castaneda was detained, beaten and denied food upon his return to El Salvador. After nearly ten months in custody, he was released earlier this month and is now in hiding pending his trial.

The ACLU is asking the court to hold the Justice Department in contempt and apply sanctions including possible financial penalties. It also wants the government to take steps to protect Guerra-Castaneda while he remains in El Salvador.

Lawyers for the government told a three judge panel during Monday’s hearing that the deportation in violation of its orders was inadvertent.

“We acknowledge the error, and we’ve moved to take remedial actions to address the court's concerns, so we understand the seriousness of it,” said Scott Stewart, a deputy assistant U.S. Attorney General.

When pressed by the judges to provide information on how the Department of Justice is attempting to either return Guerra-Castaneda or provide him protection in El Salvador, Stewart was unable to provide any substantive information to the court.

That prompted a blunt response from Justice Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson.

“That’s what’s troubling,” said Thompson during the remote hearing. “If you aren’t the person directly responsible for following through, who in your office is? Or who in Washington is? And who is taking this seriously?” she asked.

The court didn’t immediately rule on whether to hold the Justice Department in contempt.