A few weeks ago, the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. government reached a historic immigration class action settlement in Lopez-Venegas v. Johnson.
- Immigration officers and border agents will stop pressuring undocumented immigrants in Southern California to sign off on their own deportations.
- In addition, some deportees will become eligible to return from Mexico to seek U.S. permanent residency.
A few words summarized my reaction to the news.
As an immigration appeals attorney, I have long suspected the less-than-honest behavior by government agents.
Yet, given the difficulties in unraveling these situations, I longed for the day when such an outcome would be forthcoming.
How The ACLU Settlement Promotes Immigrant Family Unity
In short, even for most immigration advocates, this news is an unexpected surprise.
If you’re an immigrant rights activist, an immigration lawyer, or the family member of an already deported immigrant, I strongly suggest getting on top of this matter as quickly as possible.
The settlement has the potential to not only reunite, but also keep, many immigrant and mixed status families together.
Over the years, in my immigration defense practice, I have listened to story after story from spouses of immigrants claiming their husbands or wives were fooled or intimidated into voluntarily agreeing to leave the United States.
Unfortunately, these stories are shared after the fact.
Given the ACLU victory, immigration lawyers can now look towards the settlement agreement for possibly reopening such cases.
Many times the immigrant spouse did not know he or she qualified for a court hearing on possible relief against deportation. Other times he or she knew but were misled or intimidated into acting against their best interests.
Although the ACLU settlement does not resolve all such claims, it does prove that immigrant allegations regarding DHS wrongdoing were not unfounded. Plus, it demonstrates that immigration detention officers are not above the law.
More significantly, it provides immigrants with the opportunity to seek legal advice before agreeing to a lifetime of family separation.
The settlement is limited in scope as most of reforms agreed to by U.S. immigration officials apply only in Southern California, where the ACLU documented what it said were deceptive and coercive practices dating back to 2009.
The reforms include allowing undocumented immigrants access to a telephone and two hours to reach a legal adviser before deciding whether to sign a voluntary return form waiving their rights to seek a hearing to challenge their deportation.
One Small Step For Deportees, One Giant Step For Immigrants
The ACLU settlement is not a complete solution to our nation’s misguided detention and deportation policies.
But it is a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, the scope is limited. For instance, as noted above, the agreement only applies to Southern California cases.
Hopefully, immigration lawyers will stretch such protections to other communities. After all, it is likely immigrants living in other geographical areas have been affected by similar actions.
Of course, California has the largest Hispanic population in the country. Some estimates suggest approximately 250,000 immigrants were deported voluntarily from Southern California between 2009 and 2013, the period covered in the lawsuit.
Returning will not be automatic.
Immigrants seeking to reenter the U.S. turn will need to meet certain criteria, besides proving they were tricked or coerced, such as demonstrating they lived in the United States for 10 years with a U.S. citizen spouse, child, or parent who has suffered hardship due to the family separation. (Essentially, this is the cancellation of removal standard.)
I’m puzzled by the settlement terms that allow undocumented immigrants access to a telephone and time to reach a lawyer before deciding whether to sign voluntary return forms or to seek an immigration court hearing.
First, I thought these safeguards were already in place. For example, as an Escondido immigration attorney, whenever I have met with immigrants vulnerable to detention and deportation, I have advised them of these rights.
Until our meeting, many have not known about such procedures.
I have also encouraged them, if they are detained, to push for a court hearing because between the date of our meeting and their incarceration, the law may have changed in a favorable manner.
Second, the settlement terms are minimal. A two hour window for telephone calls, for example, is insufficient for detained immigrants in many cases to obtain necessary legal assistance.
In any event, I anticipate the ACLU deportation victory will help many, many immigrant families for years to come.
And that’s good news.
By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics