After taking their kids away, immigration officials corralled dozens of detained immigrant parents into rooms together and gave them just minutes to decide whether or not to leave their children behind in the U.S. before being deported, the American Civil Liberties Union claims in a new court filing Wednesday.
Officials gave the parents forms to sign in English and Spanish, but many of the parents spoke indigenous dialects or were illiterate. Some thought they were signing a form to get their kids back, while others had no idea what they were signing, the ACLU says.
The government has determined that 1,637 separated parents are eligible for Thursday’s deadline, and so far at least 1,012 have been reunited with their children. Another 914 parents have been labeled ineligible, including 127 parents in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, who officials say signed a form indicating they do not want to be reunified with their kids. In a court filing Wednesday, the ACLU said at least 27 of those parents now say they definitely do want to be reunited.
Of the remaining parents labeled ineligible for reunification, 463 have likely been deported, and the government is still working to identify 260 others. Those parents, many who have not seen their children in months, will remain separated past Thursday’s deadline.
Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, an attorney with the American Immigration Council, said he interviewed 52 of the parents who the government said waived their right to get their kids back.
“Many of these individuals indicated that they felt coerced into relinquishing their rights,” Reichlin-Melnick said in an affidavit filed Wednesday. “Still others appeared totally unaware that they had done so.”
Two of the fathers Reichlin-Melnick interviewed said they thought they were signing a form that would allow the government to release their children. “One of these fathers burst into tears repeatedly out of fear for his son and said he had signed the form under enormous stress and confusion,” the court filing said.
Complicating things further, 900 of the eligible parents have final removal orders, meaning they are vulnerable to deportation after they are reunited with their kids. These parents now face the difficult decision of whether to return with their child to the country they fled, or leave their child in U.S. custody to pursue asylum alone. Some may still be able to fight their cases if they can access a lawyer.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who ordered the government to reunify all of the families in June and is overseeing the process, temporarily blocked the government from deporting any of those parents so that they could have time to talk to their kids and lawyers about their legal options. Sabraw will decide whether to extend that stay on Friday.
Arguing the judge should keep the stay in place, the ACLU said in its filing Wednesday that cramped conditions at family detention centers, where at least 86 reunited families have been moved, and limited access to information about the families’ cases is preventing immigration attorneys from offering advice about what families facing deportation should do. ICE claims that attorneys have unrestricted access to the families.
Belle Cushing contributed reporting.
Cover image: A man identified only as Renan has a quiet moment as he spends time with his son, Nathan,11, as they are cared for in an Annunciation House facility after they were reunited with each other on July 25, 2018 in El Paso, Texas. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
This article originally appeared on VICE News US.