A settlement that requires immigration officials to better inform immigrants of their rights before they agree to return to their native countries could allow some people who were repatriated to Mexico to come back to United States.
The settlement between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Department of Homeland Security stems from a 2013 lawsuit, filed by the ACLU on behalf of nine Mexican nationals and Southern California immigrant advocacy groups.
The plaintiffs alleged in the lawsuit that they were pressured by immigration authorities to sign what’s known as “voluntary return” or "voluntary departure" papers, with immigration authorities failing to inform them of their right to a hearing, or that they could be barred from the United States for ten years.
The complaint states that "the immigration enforcement agencies operating in Southern California regularly pressure, deceive, and threaten Mexican nationals who are eligible to reside in the United States lawfully - and have built lives in the United States over decades - into signing their own expulsion orders."
Now, others who were voluntarily repatriated to Mexico from Southern California between 2009 and 2013 may be able to come back – provided they can prove they have the right to. Among other things, including their ties to the U.S. and good moral character, they’ll have to prove that they accepted a voluntary return and, if possible, come up with records.
“They’ll have to show that they qualify because they had a voluntary return, so they’ll want the information: A sworn statement, documents that they signed, if they did have them and immigration issued them," said Alma Rosa Nieto, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles.
Nieto says she anticipates confusion: The settlement doesn't apply to people who have been formally deported, a different kind of removal process. And people who came back to the U.S. illegally are disqualified.
This would include people like Ignacio, a restaurant cook who returned illegally to his home in San Diego after accepting a voluntary return. He was sent to Mexico in 1999, before the window for the lawsuit. But his thinking at the time applies to others like him, with families and jobs in the U.S.
He had a sick child in the hospital at the time, and figured the best thing was to accept the voluntary return, then quickly come back..
“Yeah, now I’m thinking that if at that time I didn’t sign, I’d already have my green card, or something like that," said Ignacio, whose father had been sponsoring him for a green card at the time he left the country.
Nieto fears another possible consequence: Immigration fraud, as unscrupulous notarios and others take advantage of the confusion to prey on the families of people who have been deported or otherwise don't qualify.
A formal process for deciding who gets to return will be set up between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, two agencies that carry out voluntary removals. From an emailed statement from ICE:
The applications for class membership will be submitted to a joint ICE/CBP mailbox by the ACLU and a select group of immigration attorneys & service providers. The applications must be accompanied by evidence to prove class membership. ICE and CBP attorneys will vet the applications and notify the ACLU of the grant or denial of each claim. If a claim is denied, the ACLU has the right to dispute the denial. Only after a claim is granted will an alien be offered the opportunity to return to the U.S.
Federal officials say they’re not sure how many applications they’ll get, but that "the volume will be a factor in determining how we distribute the workload."
View the settlement here.