One night last summer, Patricia's mother, Marta, did not come home. She had been in poor mental health, but it was unlike her to simply disappear without a word. Marta Mendoza was born in Mexico but lived in the United States for decades, where she raised six U.S. citizen children. As Patricia and her sisters desperately searched their Los Angeles neighborhood for their mother, Marta was in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody being pressured to sign a "voluntary return," which would result in her immediate expulsion to Mexico without an immigration hearing. If Marta had been permitted to go before a judge, she could have won the right to remain here lawfully on account of her U.S. citizen children. Patricia didn't hear from her mother until Marta called from Mexico, scared and confused about what had happened to her.
Unfortunately, Marta's case is not an isolated incident. For years, countless families throughout Southern California have been torn apart by immigration enforcement agencies' coercive and deceptive "voluntary return" practices. As a matter of standard practice, ICE and Border Patrol have misinformed immigrants about the consequences of "voluntary return," including withholding the fact that "voluntary return" can trigger a ten year bar against returning to the United States. And in many cases, immigration officers used pressure and threats to force people to sign "voluntary return" orders.
In June 2013, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit, Lopez-Venegas v. Johnson, on behalf of three Southern California immigrants' rights organizations, as well as eleven individuals, including Marta, who the government had expelled through unfair "voluntary returns." Each individual plaintiff has significant family ties in the United States and lacks any serious criminal history; thus, each would have had a strong claim to stay here lawfully had immigration officers not misinformed or pressured them to accept "voluntary return." Through the lawsuit, the individual plaintiffs sought to return to the United States and to receive a fair immigration hearing. The organizations sought systemic reforms to the "voluntary return" process throughout Southern California.
After more than a year of litigation, including intensive discovery and the depositions of key government officials, the government has agreed to significant reforms of the "voluntary return" system in Southern California. Under a settlement agreed to by the parties involved in the lawsuit, government officials must:
- Provide detailed information—in writing, orally, and through a 1-800 hotline—regarding the consequences of taking "voluntary return" to non-citizens asked to choose between "voluntary return" and a hearing before a judge;
- Cease "pre-checking" the box selecting "voluntary return" on the forms the agencies provide to non-citizens;
- Permit non-citizens to use a working phone, provide them with a list of legal service providers, and allow them two hours to reach someone before deciding whether to accept "voluntary return";
- Provide lawyers meaningful access to clients detained by Border Patrol or ICE;
- Cease pressuring or coercing individuals to accept "voluntary return";
- Allow ACLU attorneys to monitor compliance with the settlement agreement for three years.
As a result of the settlement agreement, on August 20th, Marta was allowed to return home to her daughters. In the coming months, she will finally have her day in immigration court. The settlement also includes provisions that, if approved by the court, would allow some of the hundreds of thousands of Mexican nationals who have been expelled from the United States pursuant to unlawful "voluntary returns" to reunite with their families here. We will monitor ICE and Border Patrol closely to ensure that these agencies never again trick or coerce vulnerable individuals into signing away their fundamental rights.
The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, and Cooley LLP.
A copy of the settlement can be downloaded from ACLU's website, here.