SAN DIEGO (CN) – In over 100 pages of affidavits submitted Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union in the class action over the separation of immigrant families, attorneys said parents separated from their kids at the U.S.-Mexico border were coerced into waiving their rights to family reunification.
The affidavits were submitted as part of the ACLU’s reply brief in support of its motion for a temporary restraining order to prevent the government from immediately deporting families after they are reunited.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in the Southern District of California issued a stay on family deportations July 16, after reports surfaced that reunited families were being immediately deported without giving them time to consider whether to pursue asylum or other legal options to remain in the United States.
The stay came ahead of Thursday’s court-ordered deadline for all families with children over age five to be reunited, which Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Wednesday the government is “on track” to meet. But Justice Department attorneys said in court Tuesday hundreds of parents who had been deported or voluntarily left the United States remain unaccounted for, raising doubts the government will meet its deadline.
Sabraw will take up the temporary restraining issue at a hearing scheduled for Friday.
In his reply brief submitted Wednesday, ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project attorney Lee Gelernt asked Sabraw to require that families have seven days after reunification to consult with attorneys and decide as a family whether to be removed together or to allow their children to stay behind in the United States in the hopes of pursuing successful asylum claims.
Gelernt said the government has not confirmed that it won’t immediately remove reunited families, and in settlement negotiations with the ACLU the government suggested families could only be given 2 and half days for legal consultation before facing deportation.
Parents with deportation orders who signed forms waiving their reunification rights with their kids claim to signed away their rights under coercion or without understanding the consequences of doing so, according to Gelernt.
“The evidence is overwhelming that parents have signed forms they did not understand. Some forms were presented in English to parents who did not speak that language. Some parents with limited or no literacy were not told what they were signing. Still others thought they had signed papers stating that they wanted reunification,” according to Gelernt.
Parents who speak indigenous languages were at a particular disadvantage, he added.
American Immigration Council attorney Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, who has worked with detained parents in Texas and New Mexico, submitted an affidavit stating many parents on the government’s waiver list “felt coerced into relinquishing their rights.”
He detailed how fathers who speak indigenous languages were confused about what they signed when signing the government’s reunification waiver. Many of the fathers had passed credible fear interviews to make asylum claims but were still placed in removal proceedings.
Some parents were apparently given incorrect information that their right to reunite with their kids was conditioned on giving up their legal claims. In another instance, an immigration officer told one father he would have to pay $500 every time he wanted to see an attorney, according to Gelernt.
Many class members on the government’s list of parents who have waived reunification “in fact do want their kids back.” Gelernt noted.
At a hearing Tuesday, Justice Department attorney Sarah Fabian told Sabraw some parents “may have changed their mind” and wished to be reunited with their kids. She said there were 127 parents on the waiver list – down from the 130 parents reported in government figures on Monday and the 136 parents that had been reported last week as having given up reunification rights.