The American Immigration Council and American Immigration Lawyers Association filed a joint complaint with the oversight agencies in charge of Homeland Security alleging the “illegal and systematic practice of coercion” used on parents separated from their children.
“This complaint contains 13 pseudonymized case examples and original testimony from parents who were separated from their children that show a pervasive, illegal practice by DHS officials of coercing mothers and fathers into signing documents they may not have understood,” according to the 28-page document.
The lawyers groups on Thursday sent the complaint to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General and Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and demanded an investigation into the alleged violations of due process.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials could not be reached for comment about the complaint Thursday but in the past have denied allegations of widespread abuse.
During the zero-tolerance crackdown, children separated from their parents were held “as hostages to sabotage their (parents) right to apply for asylum in the United States,” said Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, during a conference call with reporters Thursday.
According to the complaint, ICE officers held group sessions and demanded parents sign forms agreeing to a voluntary departure from the U.S. either alone or with their children but were not told they could be reunited with their children and remain in the U.S. while their asylum process moved through immigration court.
“Similar group presentations reportedly occurred at the Otero County Detention Center. Two fathers reported being brought to a room with about 50 other fathers on July 17, 2018, given ‘no explanation of the form,’ with the entire process taking less than five minutes,” according to the report.
In another case, parents reported ICE officers boarded a bus departing from the El Paso Processing Center that was filled with reunified parents and their children and handed out forms with a box checked for “option 1. “I want to be deported with my children,” already filled in with a handwritten check mark.
“Seven were taken off the bus and threatened,” for not signing the form and were detained by ICE again, according to Taylor Levy, legal coordinator for Annunciation House, which provides temporary shelter to migrants and refugees in the El Paso area.
“We urge the government’s oversight agencies to investigate DHS’ use of coercive tactics against parents and ensure that all parents and children subjected to this coercion be immediately reunified,” said Katie Shepherd, National Advocacy Counsel with the Immigration Justice Campaign, in a statement issued by the organization.
During the conference call, Shepherd said she was hopeful there would be an investigation.