SAN DIEGO (CN) - The United States has agreed to tell undocumented immigrants the legal consequences of agreeing to be "voluntarily" returned to their countries from Southern California, to settle a lawsuit that recapitulates claims, and legal agreements, that have been in force for 30 years.
The Department of Homeland Security agreed to ease Border "voluntary return" procedures in Southern California.
The government settled without admitting any wrongdoing
In a June 4, 2013 federal class action, the ACLU claimed immigration officials used threats and intimidation to force people to accept "voluntary departure."
Under voluntary departure, a person agrees to be sent back to his or her homeland, without the consequences of deportation. A person who returns to the United States within 10 years after being deported can be charged with a felony; those who return after voluntary repatriation are not subject to such harsh penalties.
This lawsuit, and others stretching back for 30 years, claimed that the Border Patrol coerced people, including people with legal clams to stay in the United States, into accepting "voluntary repatriation," without explaining the consequences.
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," plaintiff's attorney 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."
Voluntary departure allows immigration officials to 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 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 said.
She also claims that immigration officers made her believe she could adjust her immigration documents for a quick return to the United States.
Actually, the process of returning to the United States may take more than 10 years, if it happens at all, her ACLU attorneys 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 lawsuit 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.
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.
Under the agreement, the Department of Homeland Security agreed to inform people about the consequences of voluntary departure.
Under the agreement, 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 government also agreed to set up a telephone hotline so people can listen to a 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."
"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.
The Border Patrol and INS agreed 30 years ago to stop these abuses, after lawsuits from Texas and California alleged similar abuses.