This week the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of immigrants who have been subject to alleged abuses regarding the policy of voluntary departure.
Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that immigration officials do not properly inform immigrants of their options, and thus many are coerced or induced to sign voluntary departure documents without understanding the process. The lawsuit seeks a remedy of better safeguards to prevent wrongful voluntary departures, particularly among immigrants who have circumstances that might allow them to win their cases and stay in the U.S. lawfully.
According to a report on Huffington Post, the system of voluntary departure accounted for many of the record 400,000 deportations last year. The option of voluntary departure is offered to undocumented immigrants, often within hours of being detained.
The lawsuit alleges that immigrants are often persuaded to sign the form, believing that it will be the best option for them. However, they often sign before they have a chance to speak to a lawyer, who would be able to ascertain whether the immigrant has any viable claims to citizenship or lawful residence. Voluntary departure results in a ten-year bar to return to the U.S., and the lawsuit alleges that Border Patrol agents often neglect to mention that fact when informing immigrants of their options.
Several of the plaintiffs in the suit would have had viable claims to stay in the U.S. under lawful status, but were convinced to sign voluntary departures despite those claims. Samuel Nava alleges that he was told by Border Patrol agents that he would be detained for months and that an immigration judge would not grant him relief, so he opted to sign the form. However, Nava was at the time engaged to his now-wife, who is a U.S. Citizen. This would have given him grounds to fight his case and potentially become a Lawful Permanent Resident.
Ana Maria Duenas, another plaintiff, also has U.S. Citizen relatives that could have petitioned for her to stay, but she alleges that she was misinformed about her chances of doing so. Also, she says she was given a form to sign in English, and she only speaks Spanish, thus triggering due process concerns.
An advocacy group called Cuentame has been campaigning to raise awareness about the voluntary departure problem. It created a video documenting one particularly heart-wrenching case of a man named Idlefonso Martinez Sanchez. Even though he may have had family-based claims to stay in the U.S., he was pressured to sign the voluntary departure form in 2012. Later, he attempted to cross the border on foot in order to return to his wife and five U.S. Citizen children, but he died in the desert when he became lost and disoriented.
The suit does not seek to end voluntary departures altogether, as they may expedite the deportation process for those immigrants with no viable legal claims to remain in the U.S. But it seeks heightened regulation of the way voluntary departure is carried out and stronger protections against these types of violations.