Members of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) SWAT team. Photo via Wikimedia
No US president has deported as many people as Barack Obama. With more than two years to spare in his administration, he has now broken apart around two million families and counting. Under his watch, thousands of children fleeing violence in Central America have been denied asylum, deported, and then murdered after they were sent back to the land they fled. Some of these people, though, have been doing it to themselves, at least if one believes the government.
It’s called “administrative voluntary departure,” and it works like this: In exchange for forfeiting the right to contest a pending deportation, an undocumented immigrant who has been detained by the government can elect to skip the formal deportation process altogether and effectively deport themselves, while in the process agreeing to pick up the tab for the flight back to the place where they were born.
Why would someone do this? To speed the whole tiresome thing along, perhaps; the government almost never grants asylum, so deportation is pretty much a sure thing. But then, agreeing to a voluntary deportation in many cases means one can’t come back to the United States for a full ten years. If you do it, in other words, you’re basically gone for good, which few who do it understand—for a simple reason: someone in a uniform has been lying to them.
“For years, countless families throughout Southern California have been torn apart by immigration enforcement agencies’ coercive and deceptive ‘voluntary return’ practices,” write Gabriel Rivera and Mitra Ebadolahi from the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “As a matter of standard practice, ICE and Border Patrol have misinformed immigrants about the consequences of ‘voluntary return,’ including withholding the fact that ‘voluntary return’ can trigger a ten year bar against returning to the United States.”
There is, however, good news. According to a settlement announced August 27, the government will no longer use “threats,” “misrepresentations,” or “subterfuge” in order to trick undocumented immigrants into agreeing to voluntarily deport themselves. This includes no longer making “statements about negative consequences to family members if an Individual does not elect Voluntary Return.”
Now, just think about that last line and what it means. It means, in fact, that men and women in uniform have been telling scared men and women held incommunicado in immigrant detention facilities that if they insisted on “making things difficult" by insisting on their right to due process, something bad could happen to their loved ones. And you wouldn’t want that to happen, now would you? Then sign the damn paper.
Residents of Los Angeles show support for refugee children. Photo by Charles Davis
In the lawsuit it filed in 2013, the ACLU alleged that not only did Border Patrol agents verbally intimidate those in their custody, but they “physically abused them” as well. It’s no surprise, then, that many people—including those who had been here for decades—agreed to “voluntarily” leave their life in America behind without so much as a hearing.
As part of the settlement, the government promises to stop all that abuse and intimidation. It also has agreed to inform all those who agree to a “Voluntary Return” that, by doing so, they are forfeiting the chance to “request a hearing before a judge”—and, consequently, one’s “eligibility to be released from detention” back into the arms of their loved ones. Immigrants are also to be informed that they can change their mind, as well as seek advice from “a list of free legal service providers” provided them by the government.
“This is a substantial reform of how Border Patrol and ICE do business,” Sean Riordan, a staff attorney for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said in a press release. “If the agencies implement the agreement fully, never again should families be driven apart based on immigration enforcement practices that rely upon misinformation, deception, and coercion.”
We’ll see about that. Indeed, while this change is welcome, if it in fact occurs, one shouldn’t forget that, for the vast majority of those kicked out of the United States, there was never even a veneer of “voluntary” about it. Indeed, America’s unjust immigration system remains as horrific as ever. Every day children—“unaccompanied minors,” to use the parlance of our time—who don’t even understand what’s happening to them are being deported without even being given the chance to apply for asylum, which German nationals are more likely to be granted than those fleeing Honduras, the murder capital of the world.
Despite promises of administrative relief from the White House, the deportations continue. At least now, though, we can stop pretending that any of them are voluntary.
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