Settlement brings families back together

Staff Attorney Gabriela Rivera (left) helps plaintiff Alejandro Serrato (right) finalize paperwork before crossing the US – Mexico border from Tijuana. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rauber.
Staff Attorney Gabriela Rivera (left) helps plaintiff Alejandro Serrato (right) finalize paperwork before crossing the US – Mexico border from Tijuana. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rauber.

A three year grant to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of San Diego and Imperial Counties from Price Philanthropies is having a profound impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable families in our community.

For starters, nine deported Southern California undocumented immigrants with close family ties to U.S. citizens and no criminal history, are reuniting with their families and looking forward to hearings before immigration judges, something that should have occurred instead of being deported, according to ACLU Border Litigation Staff Attorney Mitra Ebadolahi, who was hired through a grant from Price Philanthropies targeting border issues.

The reason families were broken up in the first place was spelled out in a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU in 2013. The lawsuit claimed U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had implemented policies and practices to deport detainees without due process. This included not allowing detainees to call family members or lawyers, not informing them of their rights to seek legal counsel, and misleading detainees into believing if they signed the “voluntary return” papers they would be able to easily and quickly fix their status and return to the United States.

Ebadolahi said in one case, agents picked up two 15 year olds at a trolley stop on their way to school and deported them the same day, while their parents remained in the United States. In another case, a mentally ill elderly woman was picked up by ICE one evening, wasn’t allowed to call her family, and deported immediately. Her family didn’t know why she disappeared until she called them from Mexico.

In August 2014, after ten months of negotiation and discovery, the federal government agreed to settle the lawsuit and implement significant reforms to the way immigration authorities in Southern California handle detainees. In summary, agents must absolutely refrain from pressuring or coercing any immigrant to accept a voluntary return, immigrants will be given detailed information on the consequences of agreeing to a voluntary return, immigrants will be granted permission to use a phone, and they will be provided access to legal counsel.

To restore some of the damage that has been done, the federal government has agreed to authorize select immigrants deported through voluntary return procedures from June 2009 to August 2014, to reunite with their families in the United States while waiting for a hearing with an immigration judge.

The settlement only applies to the geographic area of Southern California, but the ACLU is working with elected officials and organizations around the country to implement the policies nationwide.

Because of the narrow geographic scope of the settlement, some may see it as insignificant. However, ACLU of San Diego and Imperial County Executive Director Norma Chavez says it’s a big deal.

“This is about those fundamental values of who we are as a country and how we are going to treat people, especially vulnerable people,” Chavez said, noting that many of the people affected by the settlement come from mixed status families, where one parent and all the kids are citizens but one parent is not.

Chavez went on to explain that many of the clients the ACLU interviewed were brought to the United States as children and have lived here for decades, but haven’t had the money to pay an immigration attorney to seek legal status. If they had, many would have qualified to remain.

Ebadolahi said that even some U.S. citizens had been deported because they could not provide documentation at the time they were detained or had mental disabilities which prevented them from advocating for themselves.

“You should have a fair hearing, you should be able to present evidence, you should be able to assert your rights, and you should be protected from abuse and coercion. I would hope that most people could see the value in that,” Ebadolahi said of why ordinary people should appreciate the settlement.

To help City Heights residents understand their constitutional rights and hopefully avoid the heartbreak of making an uninformed decision, Price Philanthropies is helping to fund a six month “Know Your Rights Campaign.” The ACLU has been hosting Know Your Rights campaigns for years across the country, but felt it was important to focus on City Heights because of the high concentration of immigrants and a recently passed law which forbids police officers and sheriff’s deputies from detaining people for immigration reasons.

During the campaign, the ACLU is hosting public forums to help residents understand what their rights are and how they should act when interfacing with law enforcement and training 35 City Heights residents through six, three hour Know Your Rights Academy training sessions, a train the trainer model that will allow neighborhood leaders to conduct trainings on their own. By the end of the campaign, the ACLU expects to reach about 11,000 people, including through distribution of a “Deportation Preparedness” toolkit.

Victoria Armenta, Marta Mendoza, and Patricia Armenta (Left to Right). Plaintiff Marta Mendoza (center) is reunited with her daughters, Victoria (left) and Patricia Armenta (right). They drove down from Los Angeles and waited for her all day at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rauber.
Victoria Armenta, Marta Mendoza, and Patricia Armenta (Left to Right). Plaintiff Marta Mendoza (center) is reunited with her daughters, Victoria (left) and Patricia Armenta (right). They drove down from Los Angeles and waited for her all day at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rauber.
As a part of this landmark settlement, the plaintiffs in Lopez-Venegas v. Johnson were allowed to return to the United States to make their case in front of an immigration judge – an opportunity they were denied when the signed voluntary departure forms. They returned from Mexico in August 2014. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rauber.
As a part of this landmark settlement, the plaintiffs in Lopez-Venegas v. Johnson were allowed to return to the United States to make their case in front of an immigration judge – an opportunity they were denied when the signed voluntary departure forms. They returned from Mexico in August 2014. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rauber.