When immigration officials asked a Guatemalan father to sign a sheet of paper in English several weeks ago, he had no idea what it said.
The man, a migrant who primarily speaks the Mayan language Akatek, knows no English, barely understands Spanish and is completely illiterate, according to an immigration lawyer. But he is clear about what he wants most — to reunite with his 8-year-old daughter, from whom he was separated at the border in May.
So the father was stunned to learn, from an attorney in a New Mexico immigration processing center, that he signed a form waiving his right to do just that.
The Guatemalan man is one of many migrant parents separated from their children who may have unknowingly signed away their reunification rights, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in court documents filed Wednesday.
Some parents said they thought they were signing paperwork that would, in fact, allow them to reunite with their children, according to their immigration lawyers. Others described being crowded into rooms with dozens of people, given only a few minutes to fill out forms that would determine whether they would reunite with their children or leave them behind in the United States. They signed the forms out of fear, or confusion, or a belief that they had no other choice, lawyers wrote in the court filing.
“One father was told that if he didn’t sign the form presented to him, then he would not see his daughter again,” lawyer Kathryn Shepherd wrote in a court affidavit.
These testimonies, described by more than a dozen lawyers, were part of a 125-page court filing from the ACLU as part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit over the U.S. government’s separation of migrant families at the border.
The court filing asked U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw of the Southern District of California to extend the amount of time that reunited families may be allowed to remain in the United States before the government tries to deport them.
The ACLU argued that families should be given seven days after reunification to consult with attorneys and as a family about “what might be the most consequential decision of their lives” — whether to be deported together or to leave their children behind in the United States to pursue their asylum cases.
The Trump administration on Tuesday said it was on track to reunite the majority of separated migrant families by Thursday’s court deadline. The government said it had reunited 1,012 parents with their children of the 2,551 who were separated.
But the administration also faced scrutiny from Sabraw over its inability to sort out how many migrant parents have already been deported or released from federal custody. The Trump administration said Monday that 463 parents are no longer present in the United States, meaning they may have been deported. Lawyers for the government, however, cautioned that the number does not necessarily indicate how many parents were sent back without their children.
The Trump administration also insisted that all of the parents it deported without their children gave their written consent. As of Tuesday, the government had counted 127 parents who opted to be deported without their children.
But Wednesday’s court filing paints a picture of confusion and misinformation. Lee Gelernt of the ACLU accused immigration officials of distributing paperwork to migrant parents in a “coercive and misleading manner,” creating a chaotic reunification process.
For this reason, the ACLU argues that it is crucial for parents to have a longer waiting time — at least a week — to talk with attorneys before any deportations take place.
Many of the parents speak indigenous languages, of which there are hundreds throughout Latin America. Interpreters in these languages are scarce. And even among those migrants who speak Spanish, many do not know how to read or write.
“The evidence is overwhelming that parents have signed forms they did not understand,” Gelernt wrote. “Parents plainly had no idea what they were signing or agreeing to orally.”
This means that many migrants have very little understanding of the current status of their asylum case, the whereabouts of their children or their legal options moving forward.
Luis Cruz, a lawyer counseling with migrant parents in Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M., described speaking with five fathers who were on the government’s list of people who had relinquished their rights to reunification with their children.
“All of the five fathers wish to be reunited with their children,” Cruz wrote in an affidavit as part of the ACLU’s court filing. “All five said they can’t read or write in Spanish or English. Each of the fathers told me that they were not given the opportunity to ask questions . . . Each described feeling hopeless and believing that they had no alternative but to sign the form.”
One broke down in tears, saying he hadn’t spoken to his son in 25 days and was uncertain of his location. Another father said he did not know the status of his case but was not aware of any final order of removal.
“In fact, he has received an order of removal which is dated June 3, 2018,” Cruz wrote.
This miscommunication was compounded by the fact that many migrant families arrive in the United States with very little prior documentation. This creates chaos — and major delays — as lawyers try to piece together case files.
Even lawyers working with recently reunified families struggle to sort through cases.
“Mothers and children are profoundly confused,” wrote lawyer Shalyn Fluharty. “Mothers are unable to confirm whether they spoke with an asylum officer, or immigration judge.”
Leah Chavla, who has been counseling reunited families at a residential center in Dilley, Tex., said it takes hours just to get basic information from families about the stages of their cases. This is in large part, Chavla says, because of the trauma these families have experienced.
Chavla described the struggle of clarifying information during an interview with a mother and her 11-year-old son.
“The boy would barely speak through the entire interview, only sometimes slightly nodding or shaking his head to answer simple — yes or no — questions,” Chavla said. “He only stared forward with an intent expression that looked like he was concentrating so as to not cry. His mother repeatedly told him to speak to us, but he could not speak.”
Manoj Govindaiah, the director of family detention services at the immigrant-services group RAICES, said these experiences have “inculcated families with skepticism and distrust to a level that far exceeds any that I have previously experienced with our clients.”
Govindaiah recalled how one father asked him repeatedly for proof that he was, in fact, an immigration lawyer. When Govindaiah later asked the man why he was so distrustful of him at first, the father responded that he has been lied to ever since he entered the country. The father said “he doesn’t know who is government and who isn’t, and now that he has his son back, he will not let his son go anywhere without him.”
The meeting ended without reaching much of a meaningful discussion about the father’s legal options, Govindaiah said. The man simply “could not move past his fear of re-separation.”
The father’s repeated response, Govindaiah said, was “But as long as I’m with my son, I’ll be okay. I’ll be with my son that whole time, right?”
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