Immigration Court Update: Lawsuit Victory Allows Detained Immigrants 'Coerced' into ‘Voluntary’ Deportation to Return for Hearings
Following a lawsuit from a civil rights organization, immigration authorities must provide access to proper legal options for detained immigrants.
The American Civil Liberties Union won the lawsuit on behalf of three Southern California immigrants' rights organizations -- the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center, and the San Bernardino Community Service Center -- and 11 individuals including undocumented immigrants who claimed the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement were "deceptive and coercive" about legal options.
One case involved a Mexican immigrant named Marta Mendoza, who raised six U.S.-born children. Mendoza, who suffered from poor mental health, did not come home to her family one night. While Mendoza's family searched for her throughout their Los Angeles neighborhood, ICE had the Mexican mother in custody. According to the ACLU, ICE pressured Mendoza to sign a "voluntary return," which would immediately deport her to Mexico without proper immigration hearings.
The ACLU claimed the CBP and ICE have "misinformed" immigrants about the "voluntary return" practices, which if signed could ban the individual from returning to the U.S. As a result, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit in June 2013, known as Lopez-Venegas v. Johnson. The immigrant plaintiffs were recognized to have no "serious" criminal history and allowed to return to the U.S. for fair immigration hearings.
The ACLU won the lawsuit, and government officials agreed on a settlement, which includes vocal and written detailed information about "voluntary return" practices and a 1-800 hotline number. The agreement also grants non-citizens the right to access a working telephone, including access to a legal services list. Immigrants detained by immigration authorities will have two hours to successfully contact someone before deciding on a "voluntary return." Immigration officials must not pressure or coerce detained immigrants to accept the "voluntary return" option. The agreement also allowed ACLU attorneys to monitor the lawsuit's agreement for three years.
"This is a substantial reform of how Border Patrol and ICE do business," said ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties' Senior Staff Attorney Sean Riordan. "If the agencies implement the agreement fully, never again should families be driven apart based on immigration enforcement practices that rely upon misinformation, deception, and coercion."
In regards to Mendoza, she was allowed to return to the U.S. and will soon receive an immigration court hearing.
"The United States derives its core strength from embracing the notions of fairness and due process under our Constitution," said Darcie Tilly, an associate in Cooley LLP's San Diego office who worked on the lawsuit with the ACLU. "We are heartened that this lawsuit should lead to the cessation of these forced 'voluntary departures,' the improvement of our critical border patrol policies and practices, and if approved by the court, a procedure for the reunification of aggrieved individuals with their families."
A provision in the settlement, although yet to be approved by the court, would permit "hundreds of thousands" of Mexicans who were deported from the U.S. since June 1, 2009, to reunite with their families in the U.S. A preliminary approval hearing is scheduled in Los Angeles for Sept. 8. If the preliminary hearing is successful for the immigrants' rights organizations, a final approval hearing could be set for early 2015.
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