Quick Deportations Raising New Alarm

Quick deportations raising new alarm
Immigrant advocates say detainees may not understand rights

By Vanessa Bauza
The Chicago Tribune, August 4, 2008

When Emanuel Franco was arrested two years ago during a federal raid at a Chicago pallet company, he said, an immigration officer urged him to sign an order to speed up his deportation rather than 'waste the judge's time' with a hearing.

'He's like: 'You have no right to be here. You have two options: get deported now or get deported later,'' Franco, 24, recalled.

Franco refused to sign. He came to the United States illegally as a child 20 years ago, and his lawyer told him they would fight the deportation. A judge put an end to the deportation proceedings after Franco married his fiance, a U.S. citizen. He is now awaiting a green card.

Like Franco, Roberto Mazariegos was arrested after living illegally in the United States for years. But he had no access to a lawyer and signed the deportation order.

'It was in English and I didn't understand it,' said Mazariegos, 29, who was deported to his native Guatemala in April. He left behind his fiance, who is a legal permanent resident, and their 16-month-old daughter.

Such fast-track deportation orders have increased fivefold since 2004, prompting concerns among immigrant advocates and lawyers that detainees are being rushed out of the country at the expense of their due process.

The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said its officers fully explain the orders after interviewing detainees. It also offers interpretation and contact information for free legal services, said agency spokesman Tim Counts.

'I want to be very clear this is not something they are pressured to sign,' Counts said. 'It's done slowly, it's done clearly. We want to make sure the person understands all options and all consequences.'

According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, immigrant detainees nationwide signed 31,000 fast-tracked deportation orders — known as 'stipulated orders of removal' — last year, up from 5,500 in 2004. About 16 percent of the orders were signed in Chicago, making it the jurisdiction with the second-largest number of stipulated orders, according to the center, which analyzed federal statistics.

For some illegal immigrants, speedy deportations are a benefit. By agreeing to waive their right to a court hearing, detainees can reduce their time in prison by several weeks or even months. But this is no free pass. Those who sign the orders are barred from returning to the United States for 10 years without special permission or they risk criminal prosecution.

The immigrant justice center and other advocacy groups worry that many immigrants agree to the deportation orders without understanding that they may be eligible to legalize their status. Many are not represented by lawyers. The majority who sign the orders speak Spanish as their primary language and have no criminal record, according to the center. Often, they rely on the immigration officer who is presenting the document to translate and explain it.

'The most common scenario is where the officer will tell the person, 'You are going to be detained for a long time. You don't have a right to stay in the U.S. anyway … so you might as well take the removal order now,'' said Claudia Valenzuela, managing attorney for the center's adult detention project.

Eleni Wolfe, a lawyer with the center who conducts monthly legal rights presentations at county jails, said one detainee she spoke with did not know he had waived his right to see a judge. Others were surprised to learn they would face criminal prosecution if they returned to the U.S. illegally, Wolfe said.

'They have no idea what I am talking about,' she said.

Some immigration courts do not allow stipulated orders and require a hearing to be scheduled, said Julie Myers, director of homeland security for ICE. Jurisdictions that do allow such orders make every effort to ensure that immigrants are informed of their rights, she said.

'I think it's critically important that they have this option of a stipulated removal, if they want it … but they need to know what they are getting into,' Myers said.

But some immigrant advocates say the federal immigration agency is speeding detainees through crowded jails and courts that are straining to keep up with heightened enforcement. They also point to expedited hearings for hundreds of undocumented workers arrested at an Iowa meatpacking plant in May, the largest immigration raid in U.S. history. Some lawmakers and immigration lawyers have criticized the hearings, in which groups of immigrants were processed together after brief meetings with lawyers and given deportation orders as part of a plea agreement.

'There has been a deliberate choice on the part of the administration to get people out of the United States as quickly as possible often with little or no regard to what rights they might have,' said Crystal Williams, deputy director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

In El Paso, Texas, concerns over the growing number of stipulated orders prompted a local advocacy group to strike a deal ensuring that all immigrant detainees attend legal rights workshops before they are offered fast-track deportation orders.

'A lot of people, I think, want to get out of [detention] as soon as possible and are not aware of the gravity of a stipulated order,' said Iliana Holguin, director of the Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, which offers the workshops three times a week.

ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa in El Paso said the stipulated orders help detainees who want to go home quickly, but the agency 'wants to make absolutely sure' they know what they are signing.

'It's a tremendous savings in tax dollars to be able to … remove them from the country and get them out of our facilities,' Zamarripa said. 'Is this helping to clear the backlog? Yes. As long as the aliens agree and understand what they are signing, everybody is happy.'

For Mazariegos, at least, it has not been a happy ending. Back in Guatemala, he laments that he has not seen his baby daughter since the day he was arrested last October. He said it has been difficult to find a steady job and he depends on his fiance to send him money. He hopes she can sponsor his return to the U.S. once she becomes a citizen, he said. But a reunion is far off.

Meanwhile, Franco is getting ready to go back to college. He just got a new job as a personal banker and is planning to buy a house.

He shudders at the thought of what might have happened had he signed the deportation order.

'It makes me wonder what life would have been like,' he said. 'It would have been like two separate lives, what I have here [compared] to what would have been if I had signed that paper.'