Immigrant parents who were separated from their children at the border told attorneys they were misinformed, coerced, or tricked into waiving their rights to be reunified with their kids.
In court documents filed in San Diego on Wednesday, a father from Guatemala said immigration officials told him he was definitely going to be deported and asked if he wanted to be deported with his daughter or by himself. They did not ask him if he wanted to be reunited with his daughter in the US.
Without an opportunity to review the document, he signed a form that officials told him was the only way his daughter could stay in the United States, according to a declaration signed by attorney Sofia Reive.
"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," Reive said. "He signed the 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."
The declarations from attorneys working with detained parents who were separated from their kids describe people who don't speak English being pressured into signing documents; being forced to make a decision in a room full of dozens of people with only a few minutes to decide whether to leave their kids in the US; or incorrectly believing they were signing a form that would reunite them with their children.
The testimonials were offered in support of a motion being considered by US District Judge Dana Sabraw on whether to stop the federal government from deporting parents until seven days after they have been reunited with their kids. The American Civil Liberties Union has argued that deporting parents and kids immediately after they are reunited doesn't give the family enough time to decide what is best for the child, such as continuing to fight their case in the US or returning to their home country with their parent.
In Wednesday's filing, ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said parents aren't being allowed to make informed decisions with deep consequences before seeing their children or having enough time to do so. As it is, some parents quickly signed away their chances to be reunified with their kids without legal advice, time to think, or translation, Gelernt said.
Some 85 parents purportedly signed a form waiving reunification, and 127 waived it orally, Gelernt said.
A mother from Honduras who was apprehended at the border with her 16-year-old son told attorney Charles Mwalimu that government officers told her to sign a form in order to be reunited.
"She could not read the form herself because her Spanish literacy is minimal," Mwalimu said. "Only later did she learn that she had signed away her right to be reunified with her child."
Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, an attorney with the American Immigration Council, said the team of attorneys he’s supervised spoke with 52 parents whom the government identified as having relinquished their right to reunification.
"Many of these individuals indicated that they felt coerced into relinquishing their rights," Reichlin-Melnick said. "Still others appeared totally unaware that they had done so. Indeed, some individuals were adamant that they had signed a paper that said they chose to be reunited with their children."
A Guatemalan man who was separated from his 8-year-old son on May 18 said immigration officials told him he had two options: reunification or relinquishing his right to reunification and agreeing to leave his son with family members in the US. He said he wanted to be reunited with his son but is now on a list of parents who said they didn't want to be reunited with their children.
"He was given a paper in English and told that if he signed that paper, he would be reunified with his son," Reichlin-Melnick said. "He is adamant that he did not agree to relinquish his right to reunification and that he still wants to reunify with his son."
Susanne Gilliam, an attorney who has been meeting with detained parents in El Paso, Texas, who were separated from their children, said in her declaration that a Honduran father who crossed the border with his 17-year-old son was adamant that he always told immigration authorities that he wanted to be reunited with his son. The government has listed him as having relinquished reunification.
"Since his detention, immigration officials have come and presented him with a form and told him to sign that form to be reunited with his son," Gilliam said. "He cannot read the forms and did not trust the immigration officials; thus he did not sign such forms...he denies ever having expressed any desire to relinquish reunification with his son."
Immigrants in detention said they had a difficult time calling attorneys. One mother told lawyers that another mom at the immigration detention center was put on the phone with a child who wasn't hers.
Additionally, attorneys reported having a hard time meeting with parents in immigration detention or getting enough time to screen them for potential cases.
Manoj Govindaiah, an attorney and director of family detention for RAICES, which provides legal aid to immigrants, said he had to convince recently reunited fathers that he wasn't there to take their children away. One father even asked to see multiple identification cards.
"He said something along the lines of: Since he and his son entered this country, they have been lied to, that he doesn’t know who is government and who isn’t," Govindaiah said. "And now that he has his son back, he will not let his son go anywhere without him."