Class Accuses DHS of Coercing Expulsions
LOS ANGELES (CN) - Uncle Sam uses threats and deception to force Mexicans to accept deportation in "a regime of unlawful coerced expulsion," a class action claims in Federal Court.
Lead plaintiff Isidora Lopez-Venegas sued the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and their top officials. Joining as plaintiffs are six other de facto deportees, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, and the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center.
They seek a court order stopping the defendants' "voluntary departure" program and rescinding the deportations.
Voluntary departure, also known as voluntary repatriation, is technically different from deportation though its effect is the same. Deportation, however, requires legal process, which may be time-consuming and may, at the discretion of immigration officials, involve detention in an immigration prison or contract prison, which may be lengthy. People who accept "voluntary departure" are expelled from the country quickly, with or without a simple signature.
The advantage for ICE, DHS and Customs is efficiency. The advantage for immigrants is that re-entry after deportation may bring a felony charge punishable by years in federal prison. Re-entry after voluntary departure is generally treated as a civil infraction or a misdemeanor.
The ACLU, lead counsel for the class, claims in the complaint that immigration officials use the voluntary departure process to "pressure, deceive, and threaten Mexican nationals" into "signing their own expulsion orders."
It claims the de facto policy violates the Administrative Procedure Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act, and constitutional due process.
"These abusive and illegal practices rob victims of their right to seek relief from removal. As administered and practiced in Southern California, the 'voluntary departure' program has become a regime of unlawful coerced expulsion - one which tears numerous families apart every year," the complaint states.
Though the voluntary repatriation "must be accepted knowingly and voluntarily," the ACLU says, immigration officers in Southern California tell people "they will be incarcerated for months" if they do not accept voluntary departure.
Immigration officers also tell people, falsely, that they can adjust immigration documents back in Mexico for a swift and legal return to the U.S, the ACLU claims.
"Such statements are patently false and fail to convey the consequences of taking voluntary departure. Immigrants who elect not to pursue voluntary departure are not automatically or necessarily detained pending a hearing before an immigration judge. Moreover, obtaining a visa to return to the United States from Mexico after a voluntary departure can be slow and difficult, if not entirely impossible," the complaint states.
It can take up to 10 years to return to the U.S. on a legally obtained visa, the ACLU says. It claims that ICE and DHS pressure people into accepting voluntary departure without conferring with an attorney, and are expelled "as rapidly as logistically possible - in many instances, on the same day."
"This practice violates the agencies' governing regulations, which require that immigration officers exercise discretion to determine whether to allow an individual who has taken voluntary departure a period of up to 120 days to leave the United States," the complaint states. "Thus, individuals who have been in the United States for decades are unlawfully ripped from their families and established lives for up to ten years without having time to consider their other legal options, put their affairs in order, or even say goodbye to family members."
The process deprives people who may qualify for immigration relief, such as political asylum, suspension of deportation for longtime residents, and other legal protections.
Lopez-Venegas claims that her coerced voluntary departure in 2011 forced her 11-year-old son, a U.S. citizen with Asperger's syndrome, to move to Mexico with her.
The 53-page complaint is replete with stories of other Mexican nationals who were forced to leave behind their lives and families.
"Plaintiff Samuel Nava is a native of Mexico who lived in the United States for more than a decade before an unlawful voluntary departure in March 2011. Mr. Nava has a U.S. citizen wife who has been effectively forced to move to Mexico as a result of the government's unlawful conduct. He remains in Mexico with his wife," the complaint states.
"Plaintiff Alejandro Serrato is a native of Mexico who lived in the United States for more than a decade before an unlawful voluntary departure in October 2012. Mr. Serrato has a U.S. citizen wife and son who have been effectively forced to move to Mexico as a result of the government's unlawful conduct. He remains in Mexico with his wife and son."
ACLU attorney Sean Riordan said in a statement: "It's unconscionable that immigration agents perpetually fail to tell individuals with the most to lose that there are direct and certain consequences of taking voluntary departure. One of the most serious of those consequences is a ten-year bar prohibiting return to the United States. No one should have to make such a critical decision without knowing all the repercussions."
Illegal re-entry has become the most common criminal charge filed by federal prosecutors under the Obama administration, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
"It accounted for just under a quarter (23 percent) of overall criminal prosecutions, surpassing illegal entry (Title 8, Section 1325) as the most frequently cited federal lead charge," Syracuse said in a 2011 report .
Co-counsel for the class is Anthony Stiegler with Cooley LLP of San Diego.