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Report: Some Central American Families Arrested Before They Could Seek Protection

Image: People hold signs at a protest against plans to deport Central American asylum seekers in Los Angeles, California on May 17, 2016.

People hold signs at a protest against plans to deport Central American asylum seekers in Los Angeles, California, U.S., May 17, 2016. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Several Central Americans picked up in the most recent round of arrests did not get legitimate chances to seek asylum and are being ordered removed despite assurances from the administration that it was targeting only those who exhausted all legal relief, a group of immigration legal experts said.

The cases of several of those arrested reveal that while some may have final orders, immigration officers are refusing to consider problems such as failing to send notice of hearings to correct addresses, the illiteracy of at least one woman, communications from attorneys who are filing court documents to reopen their cases and other problems, the legal experts said.

For example, in one case, a woman who was illiterate and only spoke Q'anjob'al (a Mayan language) was sent a removal order. The orders are all in English. It was clear from her file she was not literate because her fingerprint was on the line where her signature should have been, said Laura Lichter, American Immigration Lawyers Association general counsel.

"I look at this and say it is very sloppy. It's completely disingenuous" to say they have arrested for deportation people who have no valid asylum claim or humanitarian relief, Lichter said.

The CARA Pro Bono Family Detention Project, a coalition of immigration attorneys and legal experts, detailed in a report some of the cases of families picked up in the latest round of immigration arrests authorized by the Department of Homeland Security.

Among the complaints:

--No notice of court hearings sent to those arrested, including having no street name for one address where notice was sent.

--No legal counsel in 12 of 21 cases before families received a removal order and in other cases bad legal advice.

--Immigration officers notifying attorneys by postal mail that their client's removal was postponed.

As a result:

--A family was erroneously arrested and almost deported on a removal order that was no longer valid.

--A family was removed even though ICE lawyers knew that CARA lawyers were less than an hour from filing an appeal. In the past, ICE has issued stays when notified such legal filings were under way, Lichter said.

--Five of the 21 families were ordered removed by Customs and Border Protection officers, not immigration judges, and were not given the chance to present asylum claims or seek other relief from an asylum officers or judge.

People hold signs at a protest against plans to deport Central American asylum seekers in Los Angeles
People hold signs at a protest against plans to deport Central American asylum seekers in Los Angeles, California, U.S., May 17, 2016. LUCY NICHOLSON / Reuters

The Obama administration launched a month-long series of arrests in May and June targeting Central American immigrants arriving at the U.S. border in 2014. A similar series of arrests occurred in January, which resulted in the detention of 121 immigrants, mostly women and children.

The administration has said the arrests are in keeping with their stated policies which make people who have recently crossed the border illegally a priority for removal.

When news broke that DHS planned the most recent round of arrests, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in his daily briefing with reporters that "no one is removed if they have an ongoing, pending claim or appeal for asylum or other form of humanitarian relief. People are given access to due process and that is a foundational principle of all of this," he said.

"So the only people who are the targets of these operations are people who are subject to an order by an immigration court for removal and people who have also in addition to being subject to that order, have exhausted any potential claims that they have for humanitarian relief," Earnest said in the May 13 briefing.

Asked about the report and Earnest's previous statements on the issue, the White House declined comment and referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security.

In an emailed statement, ICE deputy press secretary Sarah Rodriguez listed the agency's stated policy on who is priority for removal. She said ICE "routinely exercises prosecutorial discretion when prioritizing cases for removal and considers humanitarian factors" in its decisions.

In addition, she said, "aliens being considered for removal are afforded all appropriate due process under the law, including exhaustion of all avenues of appeal."

The statement did not address specific complaints in the report. DHS did not respond to a request for comment but commonly defers to ICE, which is part of DHS.

The report and the administration's response show there is conflict over exactly what it means to provide the immigrants with due process and fair chance at legal relief.

No one in the immigration system is guaranteed a lawyer.

But Lichter said the administration is parsing words. Technically many of the immigrants do have removal orders, but a quick review of their files often shows a number of problems that kept them from getting due process before the order was issued, she said.

"What I find disingenuous is they are promoting this and saying they had their fair day in court and were not successful, they got remedy, they got relief ... We have yet to have a client who has had a fair day in court," Lichter said.

The CARA lawyers are beginning to get notice on the outcome of their work on cases from the January arrests. Three cases have been remanded to immigration court so far, one is pending reconsideration and eight more are pending with motions to reopen. In a couple cases the government filed "no opposition," Lichter said.

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For their report, members of CARA interviewed 21 families who were processed through the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.

Some of their stories are profiled in the report, although their names were changed to pseudonyms to protect confidentiality.

Among them is Yesenia, a woman who fled Guatemala with her 6-year-old son to escape sexual and physical abuse by her son’s father. She was arrested at the border in the summer of 2014 and was released from Border Patrol custody to live with her sister in South Carolina.

She checked in regularly at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office and kept the same address. But she never received notice of her immigration hearing because ICE provided an inaccurate address of the house where she was living to the immigration court.

As a result, Yesenia didn’t attend the court hearing and a judge ordered her and her son to be deported. ICE officials came to the home on May 20 and took her and her son to the Dilley detention center, where CARA Project members met her and filed a motion to reopen her case.

Another case profiled in the report involves a woman, identified as Cristina, who was arrested in a raid at her Houston home on May 21. She was taken to Dilley detention center, but was released after CARA Project members intervened and proved that ICE had erroneously arrested her before her immigration court hearing.

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“The federal government should guarantee legal counsel and meaningful access to justice to these Central American asylum seekers rather than pursuing aggressive enforcement strategies including family detention and raids that block vulnerable individuals from accessing protections under U.S. law and spread fear and undermine trust with immigrant communities,” the report states.

Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had previously criticized the latest round of arrests. They are occurring as her party has been reaching out to Latinos and other voters with criticism of Donald Trump and his mass deportation platform and other anti-immigrant policies.

NBC News Senior Writer Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report.

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