Federal agents will have to read a Miranda rights-style list of protections to immigrants before sticking them in fast-track deportation proceedings, according to the terms of a legal settlement announced Wednesday that will make it tougher for the Obama administration to quickly deport illegal immigrants.
Tens of thousands of immigrants previously already sent home could also apply to come back into the U.S. and plead with a judge to be allowed to stay — though immigration officials said the number that end up winning their cases will be small.
“This is a substantial reform of how Border Patrol and ICE do business,” said Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “If the agencies implement the agreement fully, never again should families be driven apart based on immigration-enforcement practices that rely upon misinformation, deception and coercion.”
The agreement applies to immigrants who accept voluntary departure, which is a deal between the government and illegal immigrants. They return to their home countries at their own expense and without going through a full court proceeding, but also don’t suffer penalties associated with being officially deported.
Homeland Security officials said they don’t tolerate coercion or deception, but said the new procedures will ensure it doesn’t happen in either of the two agencies charged with immigration enforcement.
“In an effort to address the issues raised in this litigation, both agencies have agreed to supplement their existing procedures to ensure that foreign nationals fully comprehend the potential consequences of returning voluntarily to Mexico,” said Marsha Catron, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security.
The full settlement still must be approved by a federal court, but the government has already committed to reading the list of rights to migrants.
Under the new procedures, agents will be required to provide — both written and orally — a list of consequences of taking voluntary departure. Immigrants will be granted the right to use a phone and will have two hours to decide whether to take voluntary departure.
The government must also maintain a toll-free hotline that gives information about voluntary departure, and will be required to let lawyers have access to immigrants in detention, the ACLU said.
Homeland Security officials estimate that about 30,000 immigrants were subject to voluntary departure during the period covered by the settlement. It’s not clear how many of them will qualify to petition to come back to the U.S., but the government anticipates it will be a small fraction.
The agreement stems from a 2013 lawsuit that argued the government was illegally pressuring immigrants to take voluntary departure, which means giving up their rights to make their case to an immigration judge.
Some immigrants choose voluntary departure because being officially deported or “removed,” in legal terms, carries stiff penalties such as a longtime bar from legally returning to the U.S.
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which was one of the plaintiff groups, said the new agreement will end “the cowardly practice of coercing immigrants” into accepting voluntary departure.
“Up until now, such a procedure became a de facto involuntary waiver of core due process rights for countless individuals who in a matter of hours sometimes were uprooted from their communities and expelled to their home country,” she said.
The settlement comes just as the immigration issue is heating up again in Washington.