A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Los Angeles against the US government yesterday claims that many so-called "voluntary departures" on the part of Mexicans accused of living illegally in the United States are actually coerced by the Border patrol.  The ACLU says that Southern California immigration authorities give misleading advice to Mexican immigrants about the nature of deportation cases, including telling them they face months in jail while their cases are processed and falsely inform them that once back in Mexico, they will be able to easily arrange for legal status in the US.  The lawsuit says all this has the effect of steering these immigrants away from insisting on an appearance before a judge, according to the Associated Press.

The option of "voluntary departure" which the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol often extend to immigrants without criminal records prohibits them from re-entering the US for up to 10 years, but spares them the possibility of stiffer penalties which could await them if formal deportation procedures were carried out. 

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The ICE and Border Patrol give immigrants this option in order to speed up deportation processes in an already busy system - this past year, a record 400,000 people were deported from the United States.  Immigrants who are being detained can sign a series of forms which give them the right to a brief time period in which they can get their things together before leaving the country.  But the ACLU says that voluntary departures are often secured under heavy pressure and misinformation.  Its lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, wants authorities to stop trying to persuade immigrants to take the option and to change their procedures in order to fully explain to potential deportees the consequences of leaving the country.  It also calls for undocumented immigrants who were forced to sign a voluntary departure deal to be returned to the US.

Lucero Chávez, an immigration lawyer from the ACLU, emphasized during a telephone interview with Univision that the immigrants involved in these cases generally had a clean record and had no more than a routine run-in with agents.  The Associated Press gave the example of Samuel Nava, a Mexican citizen who overstayed his tourist visa and accepted the offer after being pulled over for a busted license-plate light.  Nava could have asked a judge for legal status because he was married to a US citizen, and now he cannot return to the US for another 10 years.