ICE Abuse of Voluntary Departure may effect thousands.
LOS ANGELES — Nine Mexican immigrants who agreed to be deported from the United States during the last five years will be allowed to return to fight their expulsions under an agreement announced Wednesday that could also include other Mexicans who consented to leave.
In a lawsuit against the federal government brought last year, the American Civil Liberties Union argued that enforcement agents had coerced the nine into accepting a type of removal known as voluntary return by failing to advise them of their rights or warn them of the consequences. After deportation, most immigrants living here without papers cannot legally come back for at least three years and often as long as a decade.
The immigrants contended they had strong cases for staying and would have made them in court if they had known they had that option. They said agents gave them “gross misinformation” about their choices and pressured them to sign removal papers, resulting in departures that were anything but voluntary.
In the agreement, federal officials did not admit any wrongdoing but agreed to alter the practices of border and enforcement agents to have them inform immigrants more thoroughly about their rights and about the obstacles to returning if they leave.
The authorities “use voluntary return as an option for individuals who may request to be returned home in lieu of removal proceedings, but in no case is coercion or deception tolerated,” said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman in California for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in a statement on Wednesday.
Although the case involved only nine immigrants deported from San Diego and Los Angeles, it could apply to many more if a judge approves a section of the agreement that would extend it to all Mexicans who left from Southern California by voluntary departure after June 2009 and who would have had viable claims in immigration courts.
The two sides gave different estimates of how many people would be affected. The A.C.L.U. said “potentially hundreds or thousands” of deportees might qualify. An immigration official said that about 30,000 foreigners left in voluntary departures during the time period, but that only “a very small fraction” would qualify to return.
The federal judge who will decide, John A. Kronstadt of the Central District of California, is not expected to rule until next year. As part of the already agreed changes, immigration and border agencies will set up a telephone hotline with information for people considering voluntary departure and will provide lists of lawyers and times to consult them as well as better access for lawyers to meet with those who are detained.
“This is a substantial reform of how Border Patrol and ICE do business,” said Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney for the civil liberties union in San Diego, using the acronym for the enforcement agency. The agreement allows the A.C.L.U. to monitor the agencies’ compliance for three years.
Lawyers for the group said the settlement was a rare instance when significant numbers of people who have been deported can come back. They will not be given any new legal status, but will be able to take up their cases where they stood before deportation. A law firm, Cooley LLP in San Diego, also worked on the case.
Mr. Riordan said the immigrants in the suit were living without legal status in Southern California and were detained when they were going about daily routines such as driving to work or waiting at a bus stop.
One plaintiff, Gerardo Hernández Contreras, went out in San Diego to pick up ice cream for his young children, who are both American citizens, when he was stopped by local police officers. According to court documents, he was turned over to the Border Patrol and signed a voluntary departure after agents told him his wife, also an American citizen, would be able to obtain a visa for him to return. He has been living in Tijuana since 2012.
Another plaintiff, Isidora López Venegas, was stopped on the street in San Diego three years ago and signed a voluntary departure to avoid being detained and separated from a young son who is autistic. Ms. Venegas said her son was not receiving adequate care where she now lives in Mexico.
The nine Mexicans in the suit will be allowed to come back within 30 days.
Angelica Salas, the executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which was a plaintiff, said the agreement would work immediately to discourage agents from pressuring people to depart. “The cowardly practice of coercing immigrants to sign a so-called voluntary departure notice has come to an end,” she said.
Jennifer Medina reported from Los Angeles, and Julia Preston from New York
NY Times. August 28, 2014.