ACLU Touts Agreement on Departure Procedures

     SAN DIEGO (CN) - The U.S. Government agreed to new procedures so foreign nationals without immigration papers know the legal consequences of voluntarily returning to their countries from Southern California, the ACLU announced.
     The ACLU and the law firm Cooley LLP reached a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Aug. 18 to ease border patrol and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement voluntary return procedures in Southern California.
     The government entered into the settlement without admitting any wrongdoing.
     In a June 2013 class action lawsuit, the ACLU claimed immigration officials used threats and intimidation to force people to accept voluntary departure.
     Lead plaintiff Lopez-Venegas said she was forced to accept voluntary departure in 2011, returning to Mexico with her 11-year-old son, a U.S. citizen with Asperger's syndrome.
     "The United States derives its core strength from embracing the notions of fairness and due process under our Constitution," Cooley's Darcie Tilly said in a statement. "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."
     If a person agrees to voluntarily return to their country, immigration officials may skip the lengthy deportation process, which may involve detention and hearings before an immigration judge.
     But Lopez-Venegas said in her lawsuit that the process was sometimes far from voluntary.
     Immigration officials in Southern California had told people that they could spend months in jail if they did not agree to voluntarily return to their countries, she alleged.
     In addition, immigration officers had made people believe they could adjust immigration documents for a quick return to the U.S, the plaintiff claimed. In reality, the process of returning to the U.S. may take more than ten years, if it happens at all, the ACLU has said.
     "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 court filing states.
     In December 2013, U.S. District Judge John A. Kronstadt refused to dismiss Lopez-Venegas' complaint but denied her request for a preliminary injunction against the government.
     Earlier this year, the court entered a protective order for witnesses in the case. Settlement discussions began in April. The settlement was submitted to the court on Aug. 18, the ACLU said.
     Under the agreement, the Department of Homeland Security agreed to inform people verbally and in writing about the consequences of voluntary departure.
     Immigration officials must provide a working phone if a person asks for it. People have two hours to seek advice from their consulate or seek help from a legal representative before an official can issue a voluntary departure. Officials may not pre-check boxes for voluntary departure on immigration forms, the ACLU said in summary of the settlement.
     The government also agreed to set up a telephone hotline so people can listen to a pre-recorded messages that explain the consequences of agreeing to voluntarily leave the country.
     If the federal court approves the class portions of the settlement, class members may travel to the San Ysidro Port of Entry between San Diego and Tijuana, where border agents may parole them into the U.S., and detain them for a hearing before a immigration judge, the ACLU said.
     The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol issued a joint statement on Wednesday defending voluntary departure as "an option for individuals who may request to be returned home in lieu of removal proceedings," U-T San Diego reported.
     "In an effort to address the issues raised in this litigation, both agencies have agreed to supplement their existing procedures to ensure that foreign nationals fully comprehend the potential consequences of returning voluntarily to Mexico," the agencies stated.