Hundreds, if not thousands, of non-citizens who signed so-called “voluntary return” forms in Southern California and were expelled to Mexico will be given the chance to apply to return to the U.S. and seek legal status, a staff attorney at the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties said Friday.
A ruling issued Thursday by a Los Angeles-based federal judge “acknowledges that the protection of our borders cannot come at the cost of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Gabriela Rivera.
“Now we can begin the process of reuniting some of the families who could have remained together in the United States but were driven apart by government practices that rely upon misinformation, deception, and coercion,” she said.
U.S. District Judge John A. Kronstadt approved provisions of the settlement of a class-action complaint that addresses methods used by immigration enforcement officers who allegedly deprived those who signed the voluntary return documents of their right to see a judge and have their fair day in court, according to the ACLU.
The 2014 settlement stemmed from a lawsuit brought in June 2013 in Los Angeles by the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. They sued on behalf of individual plaintiffs who were expelled from the United States and organizations that used their resources in response.
The individual plaintiffs had no significant criminal backgrounds, and their family ties could have helped them obtain relief against deportation had Border Patrol agents or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers not misstated the consequences of signing away their right to see an immigration judge, according to the ACLU.
Under the terms of the 2014 settlement, nine plaintiffs returned to the United States last August, with the same legal status they had before signing the documents, according to the ACLU.
“The United States derives its core strength from embracing the notions of fairness and due process established by our Constitution,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Darcie Tilly, adding that Thursday’s ruling “will allow for the reunification of numerous families that were wrongfully separated.”
One of the plaintiffs in the case, Isidora Lopez-Venegas, described how the government’s actions affected her and her family.
“My expulsion from the United States was incredibly difficult for my family,” the ACLU quoted the mother of three as saying.
“I know that many others have been harmed by the government’s ‘voluntary return’ practices and I’m happy that today their dream of returning home and hugging their family can come true, like mine did,” she said.
Lopez-Venegas said she signed a voluntary return form in 2011 after being told that if she did not, her then 10-year-old son, who had been diagnosed with autism, would be sent to a foster home while she was detained for months.
The agents told her she could instead sign for her immediate “voluntary” return and easily “fix” her papers from Mexico, according to the ACLU.
Because she was a single mother and her family’s only means of financial support, she was anxious to do what was in the best interests of her family and based on the misinformation she was given, she saw no other choice but to sign, the civil rights group said.
She was then expelled to Mexico, and her son, a U.S. citizen, was forced to move with her. They lived in Mexico for three years, separated from Lopez-Venegas’ two daughters, according to the ACLU.
During that time period, she was unable to get her son treatment for his autism, the ACLU said.
With Kronstadt’s ruling, the ACLU and three organizational plaintiffs — the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center and the San Bernardino Community Service Center — will lead the search for potential class members in Mexico, the ACLU said.
— City News Service
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