Nearly 100 Mexicans have sought to return to the U.S. by Wednesday's deadline under the settlement of a class-action lawsuit that accused federal immigration officials in Southern California of failing to advise people of their rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Department of Homeland Security in 2013 over the use of a procedure to expel people from the country known as a voluntary return.
Under the procedure, people surrender rights to appear before an immigration judge and can't legally return to the U.S. for up to 10 years. The lawsuit claimed authorities threatened people into accepting the terms.
The government didn't acknowledge wrongdoing but agreed to changes in California that include a revised form that spells out the consequences and options of a voluntary return, new training and procedures and an information hotline for detainees seeking legal aid.
The settlement reflects the agency's "commitment to ensuring foreign nationals fully understand the implications of returning voluntarily to Mexico," the department said in a statement.
The government also agreed to let some Mexicans return to the U.S. to resume efforts to stay legally.
The ACLU, which had estimated thousands might be eligible for that chance, identified nearly 100 who might qualify to return to the U.S., said staff attorney Gabriela Rivera. Of those, the government has so far approved more than 20 to return and was reviewing other cases.
The number reflects the high bar to qualify, Rivera said. The requirements include being married to a U.S. citizen after entering the country legally, being in the country for at least 10 years and having a spouse, child or parent who relies on them, or being eligible to be shielded from deportation under President Barack Obama's 2012 executive order.
Applicants also must have accepted a voluntary return in Southern California between 2009 and 2014.
Lucy Sanchez, who came to California in 1996, was on a fishing boat in San Diego's Mission Bay in October 2009 when authorities asked her legal status. She said they told her she might be jailed for months if she fought to stay and would be released immediately to Mexico if she agreed to a voluntary return.
"They didn't even let me read it, they just said sign here," said Sanchez, 35, a wife and mother of U.S. citizens.
Sanchez lived in Tijuana, Mexico, for six years with her daughter, now 7, and was among a small group of Mexicans allowed to return to the U.S. in August to plead her case before an immigration judge. She has a court date in April.
The ACLU spearheaded an extensive campaign on both sides of the border that included workshops, billboards and television advertising to reach the estimated 200,000 people who accepted voluntary returns in Southern California during the period covered by the settlement.
The settlement applies only to the Border Patrol's San Diego sector and Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Los Angeles and San Diego field offices, and the requirements on the agencies to change the form and its practices expire in August 2017.
The agencies have limited changes to Southern California and made no commitment to keep them in place after 2017.
The number of voluntary returns has dropped sharply in recent years to less than 9,000 nationwide in fiscal 2015, the federal agency said.