ACLU: Immigrant Parents Coerced Into Waiving Reunification Rights

By Alfonso Serrano Jul 26, 2018

A 120-page filing submitted in federal court on Wednesday (July 25) by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleges that United States immigration officials misled or coerced dozens of immigrants into agreeing to be deported without their children.

One mother was told that the form she signd would reunify her with her son. Two immigrant fathers were told that signing documents would permit the government to release their children. An immigration official told another father he would have to pay $500 every time he saw an attorney.

"Based on my discussions with these fathers, it appears that none were told the implications of what they were signing or had an understanding of what they were signing," New York-based attorney Luis Cruz said in the filing. "The manner in which they signed these forms was universally described as intimidating and very stressful. Each described feeling hopeless and believing that they had no alternative but to sign the form."

U.S. government lawyers have consistently defended the family reunification process, ordered by Sabraw in late June after the Trump administration’s "zero tolerance" immigration policy resulted in the criminal prosecution of thousands of immigrant parents crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

"We have many reasons to be proud," Scott Stewart, a Department of Justice lawyer, told Sabraw on Tuesday, per Reuters.

Last month, Sabraw gave the federal government until today (July 26) to reunite some 2,500 children ages 5 to 17 with their parents. On Tuesday, Sabraw said that process seemed to be on schedule.

But earlier this week the Trump administration said that 463 immigrant parents are no longer in the U.S. and were likely deported. 

"We are extremely worried that a large percentage of parents may already have been removed without their children," Lee Gelerent, an ACLU attorney, told The New York Times.

U.S. government attorneys said on Tuesday that more than 1,000 parents had been successfully reunited with their children, while another 538 had been cleared and were awaiting transportation. The ACLU succssfully asked U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw to stay deportations of parents for seven days after they are reunited with their children. This time is needed, the civil rights group argues, so parents can decide to fight their deportation cases or leave their children behind in the U.S. 

Besides the parents that were likely deported, another 260 are undergoing government reviews, and 130 have waived reunification, according to Trump administration officials. But this last group, according to the ACLU, include parents who did not understand they were waiving their rights.

"Many of these individuals stated that they had signed paperwork they did not understand concerning their right to reunification with their children," Kathryn E. Shepherd, counsel with the Immigration Justice Campaign, said in the ACLU court document filed on Wednesday. "One father was told that if he didn’t sign the form presented to him, then he would not see his daughter again."