Rules of deportation

In the last few years, the number of illegal immigrants in detention who waived their right to plead their case to remain in the United States has shot up from 5,500 in 2004 to 35,000 this year. In all, nearly 100,000 people have agreed to leave the country under “stipulated removal.”

Not surprisingly, troubling reports have surfaced of immigrants who say they were encouraged to self-deport without knowing that they had valid legal claims to remain in the U.S. and to have a hearing before a judge. Immigrants’ rights groups are suing the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies, demanding they divulge their procedures for informing detainees of their rights. The department, which has made only half-hearted attempts to comply, should be made to do so.

In the last two years, immigration authorities have turned over hundreds of pages of documents in response to requests for information -- pages that have been heavily redacted and shed little light on the issues in question -- and say they have no more records to offer. So Wednesday, three nonprofit legal organizations filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, asking the court to compel the government to turn over documents under the Freedom of Information Act. According to one internal memo wrested from the government, such records ought to exist. It says that field offices are to “establish consistent written procedures for reviewing and approving stipulated removal orders.” If they are established, why aren’t these written procedures available?

Here’s what we need to know: How are immigrants informed of their rights, and how are those rights being upheld? For example, are victims of crimes, people who face persecution at home or immigrants with family members who are U.S. citizens apprised that they may have unique circumstances that would allow them to stay? Are they warned that a deportation will be on their permanent record and that reentering the U.S. could trigger criminal penalties? And is the process standardized across the nation?

Stipulated removals are not necessarily bad. An illegal immigrant who would otherwise languish for weeks or even months in detention may want to expedite the process and go home, and for taxpayers, that can represent a huge savings. But justice requires the appropriate safeguards to be in place -- and a lot more transparency from those who are supposed to establish them.