The U.S. has deported more than 160,000 immigrants, the vast majority of whom had no legal representation — and signed documents they may not have understood — under a program that carries severe penalties should they reenter the country, a report released Thursday said.
According to the National Immigration Law Center and professors at Stanford Law School and Western State University College of Law, immigrants often signed the so-called stipulated removals because they believed it was the only way to avoid prolonged detention. But by agreeing to the removal order, immigrants can be barred from returning to the U.S. and be subject to criminal prosecution for illegal reentry.
"All they hear is that they face more time in detention, often far away from family and friends, unless they agree to their own removal," said Jennifer Lee Koh, an assistant professor at Western State.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Nicole Navas said in a statement that the agency had not had a chance to fully review the study. But, she wrote, "an alien's decision to accept a stipulated removal is strictly voluntary. Before an alien agrees to such an order, ICE procedures require that the process be fully explained to the individual, through an interpreter if necessary."
However Karen Tumlin, managing attorney at the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, said she interviewed more than a dozen detainees who signed stipulated removal orders at the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster — none of whom understood what they had agreed to.
"They didn't know what a stipulated order of removal was," she said. "They had absolutely no idea what the legal consequences were."
Some, Tumlin said, thought they were waiting to take their cases before an immigration judge.
The report was based on interviews and a review of more than 20,000 pages of documents made public in a lawsuit filed under the federal Freedom of Information Act. According to those records, nearly 96% of the immigrants selected for stipulated removal in the last decade did not have lawyers. Immigrants who are unrepresented have to rely heavily on information made available to them by officers inside detention facilities.
One document, a two-page script to inform immigrants about stipulated removal, is written in ungrammatical Spanish and says inaccurately that only people who are married to a U.S. resident or citizen, or whose parents or siblings are residents or citizens, can fight deportation.
"Only these three groups can make an application to fix their papers!" the script reads. "You are completely within your right to see the judge but I want you to be aware that this process will take from 6 months to 3 years."
Claudia Valenzuela, an attorney representing an 18-year-old Florida man who recently was deported to Mexico after signing a stipulated removal order, said she was working to get the case reopened and the order rescinded.
The man, who came to the U.S. when he was 4, has a daughter who was born in the U.S. He might have been eligible for some type of relief had he not signed the removal, Valenzuela said.
"From the time he was detained to the time he was ordered removed and physically deported from the country, four days went by," she said. "He did not understand he was waiving away all his rights."
The authors of the report made several recommendations to improve due process protections for immigrants facing stipulated removal, including issuing protocols for using certified interpreters where needed and allowing detainees to attend legal rights presentations before they are offered the removal option.