By Julie Watson
SAN DIEGO — U.S. immigration authorities must revamp their practices to ensure Mexicans accused of living in the country illegally are properly informed of their right to a hearing before an immigration judge, according to a lawsuit settlement made public Wednesday.
The federal lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles on behalf of nine Mexican nationals and three organizations in June 2013. It alleges U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in Southern California routinely have told Mexican immigrants they could face months in jail while their cases are decided and falsely informed them that they can easily arrange legal status once they're back in Mexico.
Immigrations authorities would offer voluntary departures, which prohibit immigrants from re-entering the U.S. for up to 10 years, according to the lawsuit. The voluntary departures can be offered to immigrants without criminal records, sparing them the possibility of stiffer penalties under formal deportation orders.
ICE and CBP said in a statement that officials use voluntary departures as an option for those who asked to be returned home in lieu of formal removal proceedings, "but in no case is coercion or deception tolerated."
The agencies said they have agreed to supplement their existing procedures to ensure foreign nationals fully understand the potential consequences of returning voluntarily to Mexico.
The ACLU said Wednesday that all the plaintiffs in the case would have been able to present viable cases before the court to remain in the United States had they been properly informed of their right to a hearing.
"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," said Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties.
The settlement also includes class provisions — pending court approval — that would allow Mexicans who were steered toward signing their own expulsion orders and not properly told of their right to an immigration hearing during the last several years to seek to be reunited with their families in the United States.
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 provides and allow them two hours to reach someone before making a decision.
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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press