Immigrant Rights Signed Away?

In the past several years, nearly 100,000 non-citizens have been silently sent to their home countries under a federal government program called “stipulated removal.” Most of these 100,000 were in immigration detention. A vast majority had no criminal record. An overwhelming number did not have a lawyer. Under these conditions, government officials convinced them to sign pieces of paper that allowed the government to remove them right away, without a hearing before an immigration judge. It is not a surprise, then, that advocates are hearing reports that some were pressured to sign those papers.

Nonetheless, the Bush administration has aggressively expanded stipulated removal all over the country, with its use of stipulated removal orders rising by 535 percent between 2004 and 2008. They have a right to know what will happen when the government asks them to sign a piece of paper. And the public has a right to know if the government is violating due process by coercing or pressuring people to sign away their rights.

Here’s how stipulated removal works: Government officials present immigrants with a stipulated removal order. If immigrants sign the paper, then the government can issue a removal order against them. Once the government convinces them to sign the stipulated order, they give up their right to go before an immigration judge and have a hearing. Even if the law could give them a chance to stay here legally (for example, if they have U.S. citizen family members, face persecution in their home country, or are victims of a crime), the government can still send them back. After they are removed, they are barred from returning for 10 years, if they would otherwise have a legal way of doing coming back. And they face serious penalties (including criminal prosecution) if they do re-enter. No judge ever explains these things to the immigrants.

Who are the nearly 100,000 immigrants who were sent to their home countries under stipulated removal? According to information released by the government in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, most were in immigration detention, miles away from their friends and family. Many could not afford the bond payments that could have enabled them to be released and fight their cases. Ninety-five percent didn’t have lawyers, and so may never have known if they could have applied to stay in the country legally. Ninety-three percent had no criminal record. Most were from Mexico, but many also came from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Colombia. They lived in communities all over the country -- San Francisco, Calif.; Chicago, Ill.; Atlanta, Ga. and Boston, Mass., to name just a few cities where government agents have used stipulated removal.

Equally disturbing are the stories that the government hasn’t told us, but that advocates have heard from communities across the nation. Advocates regularly hear stories of immigrants who sign stipulated orders, but who don’t understand what they were giving up. These immigrants tell stories of being pressured by government officials to sign the stipulated orders or else face longer jail time in immigration detention. They are given an unfair choice: either sign their own removal order or stay in jail. There are even reports of local police pressuring immigrants to sign their own removal orders.

Communities across the country deserve to know more about stipulated removal.

Despite its massive use of stipulated removal, the Bush administration has refused to provide many important details about the program to the public. The Stanford Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, National Immigration Law Center, ACLU of Southern California, and National Lawyers’ Guild San Francisco chapter recently filed a lawsuit in federal court, asking a judge to order the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to provide answers about stipulated removal. We still don’t know, for example, how government agents choose which immigrants are targeted for stipulated removal.

We don’t know whether the government has done anything to ensure that immigrants are not pressured to sign these orders without understanding their rights. How are government agents trained on using stipulated removal? Are certain nationalities being targeted? If the government plans to continue the stipulated removal program, then the public has a right to know how it is going to be used. A program that pushes immigrants out of the country without knowing their basic rights raises due process concerns, and should be brought into the open.


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