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U.S. pressured parents to sign away reunification rights, speeding deportations, lawyers charge

Protesters outside the hotel where Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen met with officials from Mexico and Central America, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, July 10, 2018. (Photo: Luis Echeverria/Reuters)

Preying on a father’s fear that his daughter would be “bought” by a wealthy man if she returned to the family’s home, immigration officials convinced a Guatemalan immigrant to sign away his rights to be reunited with his daughter — allowing her to stay in the U.S. while the father was slated for deportation, according to an affidavit submitted in federal court by the ACLU Wednesday. Though he had not actually received an order of removal and had, in fact, passed the credible fear interview necessary to pursue an asylum claim, the man said the officials told him that he must choose between being deported with or without his daughter, and that the only way to keep his daughter in the U.S. was to sign a form presented to him in English, a language he does not understand.

“He had no opportunity to review the document or ask any questions about it. He told me that he signed this document because he felt pressured to do so and because he felt like he had no other choice. This entire interaction lasted approximately one minute.”

This story is one of dozens told by attorneys in a raft of affidavits submitted in federal court by the ACLU Wednesday afternoon. On the eve of Thursday’s court-mandated deadline for the reunification of all children ages 5 and up who had been separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy at the border, the accounts are intended to support the ACLU’s request for additional time for parents to consult with an attorney, their spouses and their own children — from whom they may have been separated for weeks or months — before being rushed into deportation. The suit is seeking delays of at least 7 days.

The ACLU lawyers argued that, contrary to government claims in an earlier filing, most parents have had limited if any opportunity to communicate with their children, or with lawyers, since they were separated and detained. As of Tuesday, the government said it has counted 85 parents who signed forms waiving reunification with their children — meaning that if and when the parents are deported, the children will stay in the U.S., with guardians, foster families or in custody. Lawyers for the government oppose allowing the parents to withdraw the waivers.

Esme Gomez, already a citizen, waits before her father, from El Salvador, is sworn in as a U.S. citizen in Los Angeles. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

But the ACLU’s brief filed in U.S. District Court for Southern California says many of the adults on the government’s “relinquishment list” of parents actually did not and do not want to leave the country without their children. The civil rights group says the parents were pressured, misled and even coerced into signing forms they couldn’t understand with no explanation of the ramifications involved.

“A typical scenario relayed to me by detained parents was that ICE officers told the parents that in order to see their children, they had to sign the form that was presented in front of them,” wrote Kathryn Shepherd, national advocacy counsel for the Immigration Justice Campaign, in one of the declarations submitted Wednesday. Shepherd recently interviewed 15 separated parents in detention centers in Texas and New Mexico, many of whom described signing paperwork they did not understand.

“The parents reported that they were not permitted to ask any questions regarding the forms they were being asked to sign,” Shepherd stated, adding that “none of the parents with whom we met were given a copy of the paperwork they were asked to sign.”

The experiences detailed in Shepherd’s affidavit are similar to those referenced by several other attorneys, who described conversations with confused and distraught parents who said they were pressured to sign forms in English although they understood only Spanish, or an indigenous language and, in several cases, were completely illiterate. Several parents who spoke to Shepherd and others said they were presented with the critical paperwork in groups of 30 to 60 people at a time and instructed to sign within minutes.

A man identified only as Carlos shows off a drawing he made when his son, Esli (depicted in the right of the drawing) was taken from him on July 25, 2018, in El Paso, Texas. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“One father also told us that an ICE officer told him that if he wished to fight his asylum case, that it would cost him at least $500 every time he wished to see any attorney,” wrote Shepherd.

Luis Cruz, an attorney with the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, declared that on July 22, he met with five fathers detained at the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M., who had been placed on the government’s “relinquishment list.”

“Based on my discussion 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,” Cruz wrote in his affidavit. “Each of the fathers told me that they were not given the opportunity to ask questions. 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.”

The ACLU and other legal advocates have expressed concerns about ICE’s use of the “Separated Parent’s Removal Form,” since it began circulating among detained parents earlier this month. The instructions at the top of the single-page document state that “this form is for detained alien parents with administratively final orders of removal who are class members in the Ms. L v. ICE lawsuit.” But a number of parents referenced in the declarations submitted Wednesday did not have final orders of removal, and should not have been asked to sign waivers. What’s more, despite the assertion made by an ICE spokesperson earlier this month that “this form has absolutely nothing to do with those who have pending asylum claims,” many of those who told lawyers they’d signed the forms had already passed a credible fear interview, the first step in the asylum process.

A Honduran family seeking asylum in San Antonio. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP)

According to a declaration by attorney Sofia Reive, also of Paul, Weiss: “One of these fathers on the relinquishment list, a man from Guatemala, has not received an order of removal, and was told that he had passed his credible fear interview — he has a court date scheduled for August 7. He told me that he was taken to a room at Otero approximately 10 days ago to meet with immigration officials. The officials told him he was definitely going to be deported and then asked him whether he wished to be deported with his daughter or by himself — the officials did not ask him if he wished to be [reunited] with his daughter in the United States. The father told them that he wished for his daughter to remain in the United States — this is because, as he told me, it is not safe for his daughter to return to Guatemala due to extreme and specific threats from a powerful and dangerous man who has demanded to ‘buy’ her. The officials then gave him a document in English (which he does not understand), and told him that the only way his daughter could stay in the United States was if he signed this document. He had no opportunity to review the document or ask any questions about it. He told me that he signed this document because he felt pressured to do so and because he felt like he had no other choice. This entire interaction lasted approximately one minute.”

Asked to comment on the assertions made in the ACLU’s latest court filing, a Homeland Security official reiterated that the form is required to be read to parents in a language they understand  and that “in cases where the parent chooses to be removed without their child, a notice of rights has been posted, in both English and Spanish, in every ICE detention facility in which class members are detained.  The class notice provides contact information for Ms. L class counsel. If the adult has questions about their rights, they may contact Ms. L class counsel.”

(Ms. L v. ICE is a suit originally filed by the ACLU in February and later expanded to a class action. The original plaintiff was a woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo who was detained and separated from her 7-year-old daughter after arriving at the San Diego Port of Entry seeking asylum — in apparent violation of U.S. policy on detention, as repeatedly described by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.)

Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

“Some parents have indicated they want their children to remain in the U.S if they are ordered removed and have gone as far as to indicate family members in the U.S with whom the child should reside,” the official, who asked not to be named, told Yahoo News. For those children, the Department of Health and Human Services provides case management services consistent with the standard procedure for unaccompanied immigrant children, “to find and carefully vet a suitable family member or family friend in the U.S. to care for that child.”

In a status hearing Tuesday afternoon, attorneys for the government affirmed that it is on track to reunite all 1,637 of the families it has deemed eligible for reunification by the Thursday deadline imposed by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw. While Sabraw praised the government’s effort, he noted that more than 900 families with children ages 5 and up remain in limbo, including as many as 463 parents who the government acknowledged may have already been deported without their children or have otherwise not been located.

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