SAN DIEGO – Hundreds, if not thousands, of noncitizens who signed “voluntary return” forms in Southern California and were expelled to Mexico will be given the opportunity to apply to return to the United States and seek legal status, a United States district court ordered today. Judge John A. Kronstadt approved a settlement that addresses deceptive tactics used by immigration enforcement officers who deprived those who signed the “voluntary return” documents their right to see a judge and have their fair day in court.
“Today’s ruling acknowledges that the protection of our borders cannot come at the cost of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” said Gabriela Rivera, staff attorney of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “Now we can begin the process of reuniting some of the families who could have remained together in the United States but were driven apart by government practices that rely upon misinformation, deception, and coercion.”
In June 2013, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, and Cooley LLP filed the lawsuit, Lopez-Venegas v. Johnson, on behalf of individual plaintiffs who were wrongfully expelled from the United States and organizations that were forced to divert their scarce resources in response to these unlawful practices.
The individual plaintiffs had no significant criminal backgrounds, and their family ties could have helped them obtain relief against deportation had Border Patrol agents or ICE officers not misstated the consequences of signing away their right to see an immigration judge. Under the terms of the settlement, nine plaintiffs returned to the United States and their loved ones in August 2014, with the same legal status they had before signing the documents.
“The United States derives its core strength from embracing the notions of fairness and due process established by our Constitution,” said Darcie Tilly, litigation associate at Cooley LLP. “We are heartened by today’s ruling, which will allow for the reunification of numerous families that were wrongfully separated.”
One of the plaintiffs in the case, Isidora Lopez-Venegas, described the anguish the government’s actions caused for her and her family. “My expulsion from the United States was incredibly difficult for my family. I know that many others have been harmed by the government’s ‘voluntary return’ practices and I’m happy that today their dream of returning home and hugging their family can come true, like mine did,” said Lopez-Venegas, a mother of three who signed a “voluntary return” form in 2011 after being threatened that if she did not, her then ten-year-old U.S. citizen son who had been diagnosed with autism would be sent to a foster home while she was detained for months.
The agents told her she could instead sign for her immediate “voluntary” return and easily “fix” her papers from Mexico. Because she was a single mother and her family’s only means of financial support, she was anxious to do what was in the best interests of her family and based on the misinformation she was given, she saw no other choice but to sign. She was immediately expelled to Mexico, and her son—a U.S. citizen—was forced to move with her. They lived in Mexico for three years, separated from Lopez-Venegas’ two daughters. During this difficult period, she was unable to get her son treatment for his autism.
Now that Judge Kronstadt has approved the class provisions of the settlement, the ACLU and the three organizational plaintiffs, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center, and the San Bernardino Community Service Center, will be leading the search for potential class members in Mexico. “CHIRLA looks forward to assisting families who are impacted by this decision,” said Luis Perez, CHIRLA Legal Services Director.
“This deportation machine unfortunately is something that has touched the lives of many people in our community. It's something that has broken up families and shattered the hope and dreams of many good, hard-working people. It is something that many of us have been affected by either directly via family ties or indirectly through friends and co-workers. We're happy because this settlement will bring back some of the individuals who were lost and reunite them with their loved ones and put them back on their path for a better life,” said Fernando Romero, Executive Director of the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center.
To qualify as a class member under the Lopez-Venegas “voluntary return” settlement an individual must:
- Have signed a “voluntary return” form between June 1, 2009 and August 28, 2014 and been expelled to Mexico;
- Have had certain reasonable claims to reside in the U.S. lawfully at the time the “voluntary return” form was signed;
- Have been processed by Border Patrol officers from the San Diego Sector or by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers from the San Diego or Los Angeles field offices; and
- Be physically present in Mexico at the time of submission of application for class membership.
Potential class members should be wary of notario fraud. Only the ACLU and ACLU-approved service providers will be able to submit applications for approval to the government for relief under this settlement. The application for relief under this settlement is free, as are consultations related to determining class eligibility. Potential class members and their families should write to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 619-398-4189 within the United States or, from Mexico, use toll-free number 01-800-681-6917 to schedule an initial consultation.