LAX immigration agents asked detainees to sign away their legal residency status, attorneys say

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Attorneys for travelers detained at Los Angeles International Airport over the weekend say they believe some detainees were asked to sign forms giving up their legal residency status or withdrawing their admission to the country.

Several people with green cards traveling from countries targeted under President Donald Trump's immigration executive order were held for hours and questioned by Customs and Border Protection officers.

During those interviews, the agents put forms in front of some detainees and tried to persuade them to sign away their residency status, said Stacy Tolchin, a private attorney working with the ACLU in representing detainees.

"We believe immigration was trying to coerce them into abandoning their permanent residency status," Tolchin said.

In another development, the Associated Press reported on Monday that acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a Democratic appointee, said she's directed Department of Justice attorneys not to defend Trump's executive order on refugees and immigration. However, Trump later fired Yates and named Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to serve in her place.

Yates, an appointee of President Barack Obama, had said she isn't convinced that Trump's order is lawful, or that its defense is consistent with the department's obligation to "always seek justice and stand for what is right."

The White House press office says in a statement Monday that Yates "has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States." The statement calls Yates an Obama administration appointee "who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration."

Trump has picked Sen. Jeff Sessions to lead the Justice Department, but he has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

Local immigration attorney Alma Rosa Nieto had said Yates' directive means DOJ attorneys won't defend the suits that have been filed against the executive order, but the order itself still stands.

"It just means that when these cases are brought in court, the government attorneys are going to come in and say, 'No opposition,'” Nieto said.

Attorneys charge detainees coerced

In an L.A. federal court filing Saturday on behalf of Fatema Farmad and Marzieh Moosavizadeh Yazdi, the detainees' attorneys said the immigration agents' actions amounted to an attempt to "coerce individuals to sign a form to relinquish their lawful permanent resident status or otherwise withdraw their applications for admission."

Tolchin said attorneys concluded this after speaking to the detainees and their families about the documents they were asked to sign.

One form, I-407, allows those with green cards to voluntarily abandon their status as a lawful permanent resident of the United States. Tolchin said the form is used when a green card holder decides to return to their homeland and give up their U.S. residency. Federal immigration law states that when a returning permanent resident is seeking admission, the government cannot bar them, she said.

Another form, I-275, is a request to withdraw a traveler's application for admission to the country.

The agents' alleged action would appear to escalate the seriousness of violations that immigration attorneys say occurred over the weekend at LAX. In such cases, agents would not only be asking questions that kept the detainees from entering the country but taking action that could revoke their residency.

Tolchin said the ACLU, along with her firm, is representing six people who were detained locally. All but one were eventually released into the United States.

One man, Tolchin said, was coerced into signing a form withdrawing his admission to the U.S. and was sent back to his native Iran. He had been coming to the U.S. on an immigrant visa, she said, and he was to receive his green card here. She said another, a woman on a non-immigrant visa, signed a voluntary departure form but was eventually released, along with the others. 

Tolchin said attorneys also believe, based on information from detainees, relatives and other attorneys, that along with these other visa holders, some legal permanent residents were asked to sign forms abandoning their legal residency. 

This may not have been the case throughout the weekend. Helen Attai, a volunteer interpreter in Farsi from Granada Hills, said she interviewed travelers from Iran coming through arrivals Sunday afternoon. She said while people were held several hours, none reported being asked to sign forms. 

KPCC is attempting to reach Customs and Border Protection for a response. Immigration officials have not answered questions about the number of people detained at LAX and how many may still be held.

In the meantime, despite the outcry Trump's order has triggered, supporters like Mike Simpfendorfer, head of the group Make California Great Again, were quick to defend the policy.

"Mr. Trump spent many months making it very clear [that] we have some serious problems with people coming in from different parts of the world that support terrorism and he was going to take action," Simpfendorfer told KPCC's "Take Two."

Simpfenderfer said Trump's decision was a wise one, despite the fact that the perpetrators of the attacks that Trump often cited as motivating factors for the suspension — the San Bernardino attacks, the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre and 9/11 — would not have been prevented from entering the country under his order.

As Monday broke, news of the visa ban reverberated through refugee and Middle Eastern communities across Southern California.

At an ESL class in Anaheim, 16 adult learners were practicing the past tense in a classroom at Access Services California. It's an organization that helps immigrants and refugees get integrated into American society.

Most of the women in the classroom wore headscarves, and many were refugees — including Reem Noori. She was a lawyer in Iraq and she came to the U.S. two years ago. She said she was shocked by President Trump announcement Friday.

“People flee their homes and want to come here seeking safety and justice," she said.

Noori said she understood the president’s desire to keep the country safe — she came from a country where civilians are still killed in conflict weekly. But she didn’t understand why he was targeting refugees.

“We want to contribute with American people to make America great — or great again, as he said."

Another Iraqi student, Sabeeha Hajazi, has been trying for years to bring her grandchildren and her youngest son — who she says worked security on a U.S. military base — to live with her in Anaheim.

“But now this order, it finish any hope,” she said.

News of the travel ban was all the talk in the "Tehrangeles" neighborhood in Westwood — home to many Iranians who fled the country in the 1970s and '80s.

Saghar Fanisalek, the owner of the Taste of Tehran restaurant, said Trump's order “hurt, it’s absolutely discrimination.”

Fanisalek said she had friends who were visiting family in Iran when the travel ban was announced. She said now they’re “very, very upset” and worried they’ll be stuck in Tehran, even though they have permits allowing them to live and work in the U.S.

One customer, Javad Seyedzadeh, said there was a " tremendous amount of anxiety" since the travel ban was announced, as well as “uncertainty and confusion.”

Seyedzadeh, who is a U.S. citizen, said he normally tries to visit his family in Iran once every two years, and had been planning to visit this summer. Now he’s concerned that he will be unable to if the Iranian government follows through on a reciprocal ban on U.S. citizens entering their country. 

This story has been updated.

With contributions from AP

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