Logo for the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Courtesy United States Department of Homeland Security via Wikimedia Commons.
Logo for the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Courtesy United States Department of Homeland Security via Wikimedia Commons.

Civil rights groups and federal immigration authorities announced Wednesday the settlement of a lawsuit over the voluntary departure procedures for certain Mexican nationals who want to stay in the United States.

The settlement arises from a federal lawsuit filed in Los Angeles in June 2013 in which nine Mexican nationals and three organizations that work with immigrants challenged procedures used by Border Patrol agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in which foreigners sign their own expulsion orders.

As a result of the settlement, reforms to the process known as “voluntary departure” have been put into effect, including revisions to the information immigration officers must disclose to people choosing between voluntary departure and a hearing before an immigration judge, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which was among the civil rights groups bringing the lawsuit.

ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said “voluntary return” is used as an option for immigrants who ask to be sent to their home country in lieu of removal proceedings, “but in no case is coercion or deception tolerated.”

“In an effort to address the issues raised in this litigation, both agencies have agreed to supplement their existing procedures to ensure that foreign nationals fully comprehend the potential consequences of returning voluntarily to Mexico,” she said.

The settlement includes class provisions that, if approved by the court, would allow certain Mexican nationals who have been expelled from Southern California, pursuant to the contested procedures over the last several years, to seek to reunite with their families here.

Kice said that during the five-year period covered by the settlement, about 30,000 immigrants received voluntary returns. Only a small percentage would qualify for relief under the terms of the agreement.

Immigration rights groups applauded the settlement.

“This settlement will ensure that our resources towards working to a permanent solution to fix our broken immigration system, uphold the due process for immigrants, provide an opportunity for those who have been affected by this practice to return to the U.S., and most importantly stop the current abuse of voluntary departure practices which has separated thousands of families,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

All of the plaintiffs in the proposed class-action suit would have had strong claims to remain in the United States, had they gone before an immigration judge instead of being pressured to choose voluntary departure, the ACLU said.

“The United States derives its core strength from embracing the notions of fairness and due process under our Constitution,” said Darcie Tilly, a San Diego attorney who worked on the project with the ACLU. “Therefore, we are heartened that this lawsuit should lead to the cessation of these forced ‘voluntary departures,’ the improvement of our critical border patrol policies and practices, and if approved by the court, a procedure for the reunification of aggrieved individuals with their families.”

The class portions of the settlement must now go through an approval process before U.S. District Judge John A. Kronstadt.

If the court grants preliminary approval at a Sept. 8 hearing, there will likely be a final approval hearing in early 2015.

If final approval of the settlement is granted, class members who meet the settlement’s criteria — Mexican nationals who signed voluntary departure forms between June 1, 2009 and August 18, 2014 in the San Diego Border Patrol sector and the San Diego and Los Angeles ICE field office areas, and would have qualified for certain forms of relief from removal — would be able to apply to be a class member and seek to return to the United States.

City News Service

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