A California rights group filed a class action lawsuit on Wednesday against the U.S. government, alleging that federal immigration police coerced and deceived undocumented immigrants, including a mentally disabled woman, into signing forms agreeing to voluntary deportation.
The American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on behalf of six Mexican deportees and two California immigrant advocacy groups against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or DHS.
It alleged that immigration police in Southern California used pressure, deceit and threats to get unauthorized migrants - including a mentally disabled woman and others who meet the qualifications for legal resident status - to sign forms agreeing to deportation.
The administration of President Barack Obama gives priority to the deportation of immigrants who break criminal laws, have recently crossed the borders illegally, or repeatedly violated immigration law or are fugitives from immigration court.
Backers of the suit argued the DHS is violating migrants' rights just as the U.S. Senate is taking up a comprehensive immigration overhaul backed by Obama that seeks to put 11 million undocumented migrants on a path to citizenship while tightening security on the Mexico border.
"The people we represent are the exact people President Obama has said we want to become citizens who are instead being tricked and frightened into giving up their constitutional and human rights," ACLU lawyer Sean Riordan said.
Last year the government deported 409,849 people from the United States, of whom 225,390, or 55 percent, were convicted criminals, according to DHS figures, although it was not clear how many were voluntary deportations.
Peter Boogard, DHS spokesman in Washington, told Reuters the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include an unauthorized immigrant married to a U.S citizen who was detained in San Diego for talking on the phone while driving, and a mentally disabled 25-year-old woman who was questioned and detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents while she waited at a bus stop.
Both signed voluntary deportation forms without understanding them, Riordan said. Part of what those who sign the form agree to is to not apply to return to their homes and families in the United States for 10 years, he said.
"These are individuals who have lived lawfully and productively in the U.S. for decades before they were torn from their families and roots, and tricked or frightened into agreeing to be kicked out," Riordan said.
"If they had been able to go before an immigration judge, they would still be here," he added.
The 51-page complaints alleges that plaintiffs were threatened with separation from their children and families, given forms they could not read or understand because of the language, or simply abused until they signed the forms.
People found to be in the U.S. illegally are supposed to have the option to be held in detention and go before a judge, Riordan said. "But it seems to be part of the culture at Homeland Security to pressure people into signing a waiver of their rights and agree to be deported."