Read: Immigrant parents describe signing reunification waivers they didn’t understand

Long battle ahead.
Long battle ahead.
Image: Reuters/Loren Elliott
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Many immigrant parents attempting to apply for asylum in the US ended up signing papers that relinquished their right to reunite with their children, who are detained separately. According to an explosive court filing by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), some of those parents allege they were misled into doing so.

The 120-page filing, which the ACLU submitted in federal court on Wednesday (July 25), argues there is “overwhelming” evidence that parents signed forms they did not understand, which specifically relinquished their right to reunification. The ACLU alleges some forms were presented in English to parents who did not speak that language and parents with limited or no literacy were not told what they were signing. Parents who speak an indigenous language were likely at a particular disadvantage.

The filing includes the following allegations:

False options

Officials ran presentation where they told a group of asylum seekers they had three options: be removed without their child, be removed with their child, or continue to fight their claims for asylum. They were not told nor did they understand that they could both continue to fight their asylum claims and be reunified with their children.

Indigenous people who did not speak English or Spanish

There were several cases where immigrant parents spoke indigenous languages, such as Mam, Ixil, Lxil, and Kiche, but were told to sign forms in either Spanish or English.

Nine fathers who had “no idea” they signed away their rights

Lawyers describe a meeting with nine fathers who had been placed on a so-called “relinquishment list.” Every one of these fathers told the lawyers that they did not want to be deported and that they had no idea that they had signed a document that relinquished any rights to be reunited with the children.

A mother with limited literacy

One mother from Honduras came with her 16-year-old son. Shortly after her son was taken away from her, she was told to sign a form, which officials said would lead her to be reunited with her son. She did not understand the form because her Spanish literacy is limited. Only later did she learn that she signed away her right to be reunified with her son.

A father who felt pressured to sign

One father says he was taken to a room to meet with immigration officials a couple of weeks ago. Officials told him he was going to be deported and then asked whether he wished to be deported with his daughter or by himself. Though he had passed his credible fear test, which establishes whether an immigrant can go on to apply for asylum, the officials did not ask him if he wished to be reunified with his daughter in the US. The father asked his daughter to remain in the US to protect her. The officials then gave him a document in English, which he does not understand, and told him that the only way his daughter could stay in the US was if he signed this document. The document relinquished he right to be with his daughter. He says he signed the document because he felt pressured to do so. Two days later, he says officials told him that he had passed his credible fear interview and that he had a pending court date.

A mother convinced not to seek asylum

Officers told one mother that applying for asylum would take six to eight months and that she would not see her daughter during that time period. As she could not bear to be separated from her daughter for that many months, the mother signed the form. The following day, officials met with her and gave her information about where her daughter was, and gave her numbers where she could reach her daughter.

Both US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, have committed to provide detainees who don’t speak English with language services. According to a 2015 document detailing ICE’s language plan, some Central American indigenous languages were already “represented” at ICE facilities, and the agency was working on expanding interpretation for indigenous languages through contractors.

The court-ordered deadline—July 26th—has passed for the government to reunite more than 2,000 families separated at the US-Mexico border. While many families have been reunited, hundreds still remain separated. The ACLU filing shows that there’s a long fight ahead until all families are reunited.