Federal immigration agents often persuade migrants from Mexico suspected of being in the U.S. illegally to sign what are known as "voluntary departure" forms, in which the detainees agree to leave the country without a deportation hearing. Used properly, the process is an expedient way to dispose of cases in which the violation is clear and the detainee chooses not to fight.
Unfortunately, some immigration agents in Southern California have been lying to detainees about the consequences of leaving voluntarily — for some, up to a 10-year ban on returning. Detainees also complain that federal agents have interfered with their efforts to seek legal advice and threatened lengthy detentions for people who actually qualified for bail or release on their own recognizance.
As a result, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people who have grounds to remain in the country legally have been coerced into leaving; some of those who left had active immigration petitions but could no longer pursue them because they were barred from returning. The ACLU and other groups filed a lawsuit over the practice last year, and last week announced a settlement in which the Department of Homeland Security admitted no wrongdoing by Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Border Patrol agents but agreed to settle to avoid the cost of litigation. Under the settlement, the government will allow those who were denied proper legal hearings in San Diego and Los Angeles after June 1, 2009, the chance to return to the U.S. for their day in court.
Despite the refusal of the government to acknowledge error, the plaintiffs' allegations and the government's agreed-to remedies make it clear that some federal agents displayed an abject disregard for both the truth and the right of people to seek legal immigration status. The plaintiffs include spouses and parents of U.S. citizens, as well as people brought here as minors who qualify for waivers under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
As part of the settlement, the government will revise Form I-826, used in the voluntary departures, so that it spells out the options and consequences, a revision that probably will be implemented nationwide. The government also will institute new procedures and training for immigration agents, create an information hotline and provide detainees with contact information for local legal aid services. But those fixes will apply only to the San Diego and Los Angeles districts.
It's hard to imagine that the coercive tactics employed by some Southern California agents were limited to those districts. So while we applaud the government's decision to recognize and fix the problem, even if at the prodding of a lawsuit, the obvious next step would be for it to adopt the modest terms of this settlement nationwide.
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