Marta Mendoza, a 47-year-old Mexican woman, had lived in the Los Angeles area illegally for 32 years. There, she raised six children, all U.S. citizens.
In July 2013, Mendoza, who has a history of mental health issues, was arrested for shoplifting at a pharmacy near her home. The American Civil Liberties Union says that while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she was pressured to sign "voluntary return" papers, which led her to be returned to her home country five days later.
"We didn't know where she was at," her daughter Patricia told NPR's John Burnett. "We had to go around looking for her with a picture. Who was she with, was she eating, did anyone take her? It was just a very scary feeling."
The ACLU sued on behalf of nine Mexicans, including Mendoza, who were living illegally in the country, as well as three organizations.
NPR's Burnett adds: "Other plaintiffs in the case — most of whom had been in the U.S. for years — were picked up: waiting at a bus stop, walking across a parking lot, and questioned in a traffic stop."
But under a deal announced today between the ACLU and the Department of Homeland Security, immigration officials must provide detailed information to immigrants in the country illegally about their right to a hearing before a judge.
Burnett, who is reporting on the story for All Things Considered, says the settlement also allows the immigrants to return to the U.S. and make their case to stay here.
"We have the government agreeing to give oral and written advisals of all the consequences of voluntary departure, which they weren't doing previously," Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney with the ACLU in San Diego and Imperial counties, told Burnett. "We have the government agreeing to set up a 1-800 hotline. And we have provisions that relate to people to contact the outside world when they're at a Border Patrol station or an ICE office being asked to make this critical decision."
The Obama administration has expelled more than 2 million people who came to the U.S. illegally. In the process of deporting some of those immigrants, federal agents violated their due-process rights, Burnett reports.
The Associated Press cited an ICE statement as saying officials use voluntary departures as an option, "but in no case is coercion or deception tolerated."
If agents allow everyone who is arrested on an immigration violation to get their day in court — as the law allows — it can take years.
"It does take time," Hiroshi Motomura, an immigration law expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Burnett. "Some of that reflects the fact that the immigration court system is woefully underfunded. And so there aren't enough judges to hear the cases."
Here's more from the AP:
"The settlement will require immigration agencies to give detailed written and oral information about their rights and to establish an information hotline about the options. It would prohibit officials from 'pre-checking' the box selecting voluntary departure on forms given to immigrants and would require agencies to allow people to use a phone, provide them with a list of legal service providers and allow them two hours to reach someone before making a decision."