Undocumented immigrants and immigrants’ rights organizations got a bit of good news in August as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced that a lawsuit it filed more than a year ago in Southern California resulted in reforming practices associated with the policy of voluntary return, a practice that bypasses immigration courts and sends undocumented immigrants back to their countries of origin. Arguing that undocumented immigrants were often subjected to pressure and coercion to agree to voluntary return, an administrative procedure that can have far-reaching implications, the ACLU argued, immigration and border officials must now establish comprehensive practices to ensure immigrants’ legal protection.
According to a statement issued by the ACLU regarding the class-action lawsuit, “countless families” have been broken apart with “coercive and deceptive voluntary return practices.” As a matter of practice, the statement reads, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) regularly misinformed immigrants that agreeing to voluntary return can result in a 10-year ban against returning to the United States. “And in many cases, immigration officers used pressure and threats to force people to sign voluntary return orders.”
The settlement spells out the required reforms. Immigration and border officials must:
- Give immigrants detailed information regarding the consequences of choosing voluntary return over the option of facing an immigration judge. The information must be provided orally, in writing and through a 1-800 phone number.
- Officials can no longer pre-check the voluntary return option on agency forms.
- Officials must allow immigrants to use a working phone, provide a list of legal service options and give immigrants two hours to find assistance before choosing voluntary return.
- Allow lawyers “meaningful access” to their clients.
- Cease pressure and coercion in getting immigrants to agree to voluntary return.
- Allow the ACLU to monitor officials’ compliance to the reforms.
According to a 2012 report in The El Paso Times, officials planned to cut back on the practice of voluntary returns, making the policy more of an exception than the norm.