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It's not that often that the Department of Homeland Security says we were wrong to a group of immigrants it's deported, but that's what's happened in a case in Southern California. Homeland Security and the ACLU has settled a lawsuit that claims federal agents coerced immigrants who were living in the country illegally to voluntarily return to Mexico. As NPR's John Burnett reports, the government has invited these immigrants to return to the United States and make their case to stay.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The Obama administration has come under sharp criticism from immigrant activists for expelling more than 2 million people from the United States. The administration, according to many analysts, been deporting so many people to show skeptical Republicans that it's serious about immigration enforcement in order to get their votes on comprehensive immigration reform.
But in the process of rounding up folks who entered the U.S. illegally and streamlining their departures, federal agents violated their due process rights, and that's what the settlement announced today is about. Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney with the ACLU in San Diego and Imperial County, says Homeland Security has agreed to reform the way it handles voluntary departures.
SEAN RIORDAN: So we have the government agreeing to give oral and written advisals of all the consequences of voluntary departure, which they weren't doing previously. We have the government agreeing to set up a 1-800 hotline, and we have provisions that relate to people being able to contact the outside world when they are at a border patrol station and or an ICE office being asked to make this critical decision.
BURNETT: The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment. The government has told the nine plaintiffs in the lawsuit who were all deported to Mexico that they can return to Southern California and make their cases before an immigration judge, a process they were denied the first time around.
One of the plaintiffs is Martha Mendoza. She's a 47-year-old Mexican citizen who had lived in the Los Angeles area illegally for 32 years and raised six children who were all U.S. citizens. Mendoza, who has a history of mental health issues, was arrested for shoplifting at a pharmacy near her home in July 2013. After she was reportedly pressured to sign voluntary departure papers, she was deported to Tijuana five days later, which terrified her daughter, Patricia.
PATRICIA: We didn't know where she was at, and so we had just had to go around looking for her with a picture. Who was she with? Was she eating? Did anyone take her? You know, it was just a very scary feeling.
BURNETT: 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.
The ACLU alleged agents with Immigration Customs and Enforcement used deceptive and coercive practices to get the immigrants to sign their own deportation papers. This, in an effort to quickly remove immigrants out of the country. If agents allow everyone who's arrested on an immigration violation to get their day in court as the law allows, it can take years says Hiroshi Motomura. He's an immigration law expert at UCLA.
HIROSHI MOTOMURA: It does take time. Some of that reflects the fact that the immigration court system is woefully underfunded. And so there just aren't enough judges to hear the cases.
BURNETT: But the settlement could grow considerably larger than the nine plaintiffs. Next month, the ACLU will go before a federal judge in Los Angeles and asked him to approve a class-action. Any Mexican national who signed voluntary departure forms in Southern California between 2009 and 2014 could also seek return.
This is a prospect that outrages Mark Krikorian, Executive Director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which support stricter immigration laws.
MARK KRIKORIAN: What the class action portion of this settlement would mean is that hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens would be welcomed back into the United States by the government to make their case before an immigration judge.
BURNETT: The ACLU expects a final hearing in Federal court early next year on whether the settlement will expand to a much larger class of immigrants. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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