By Julia Edwards
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. immigration authorities violated their own rules by telling some of the 121 Central American women and children they arrested in raids last month that they had no legal recourse to dispute their deportations, according to several of the women and their lawyers.
The accusation centers on the Jan. 2-4 raids that were the U.S. administration’s first large-scale operation since mid-2014 to deport hundreds of families who crossed the southern border illegally.
Four of the women -- three of them in statements to Reuters through their lawyers and one in an interview with Reuters -- said that ICE agents had misled them on their right to legal counsel while they were detained at a detention facility in Dilley, Texas.
ICE, which oversees deportation operations, denied that its officers told the women they had no legal recourse in their case.
"Upon arrival at the center in Dilley, Texas, ICE officers provide incoming residents with a notice of right to legal counsel," said ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok. "The residents in question all had an opportunity to meet with legal counsel."
Under U.S. law, immigrants are guaranteed access to a lawyer, even after they have been given a deportation order. In practice, many cannot afford a lawyer or are caught in a backlog of cases seeking a pro bono lawyer.
Although President Barack Obama has taken steps to ease the deportation threat for undocumented immigrants with substantial ties to the United States, he has faced criticism from immigration rights advocates and Latino leaders over the January raids.
U.S. officials say the raids were intended to send a message of deterrence to Central American families to prevent a reprise of a 2014 border crisis in which tens of thousands of migrants from the region streamed across the Mexican border.
Some women detained in the January raids may have had a strong legal case for asylum because they were fleeing violence in Central America, said Ian Philabaum, an advocacy coordinator for the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, a group of lawyers made up of four immigrant advocacy groups.
The lawyers representing the women are all from CARA. The women were among 35 people who received an emergency hold on their deportations from the Justice Department and who are now seeking asylum. Dozens of women and children detained in the raids were deported from Jan. 4-7.
(Graphic on spike in asylum claims from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador:http://tmsnrt.rs/1KDwn)
The four women said they never received the legal rights presentation that ICE said it provides.
Two of them, Ana Orellana and Gloria Diaz, said in statements through their lawyers that they were called into a room with an unspecified number of other El Salvadorian women shortly after arriving at Texas facility. There, they said, they were told they had no access to lawyers and no more legal recourse to avoid deportation.
One woman, Dominga Rivas, said ICE officers invited her to the legal rights presentation only after her lawyers brought her case to an immigration judge who issued a stay of deportation. She said she did not attend because she was afraid it was a trick.
Cecillia Wang, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, told Reuters the civil rights legal advocacy group is considering bringing a lawsuit against the government over the families' legal treatment.
Several Democratic senators introduced a bill on Thursday to guarantee a lawyer at the government's expense to unaccompanied child migrants and those who have been victims of torture and violence. The bill's sponsors said that without a lawyer, an asylum seeker's chance of success is "virtually nil."
ASYLUM TREND LAGGING
One woman, Susana Arevalo, told Reuters that immigration officers told her she had no legal recourse for her case when they came to her house on Jan. 2 in Atlanta, arrested her and took her to the Dilley detention center. Arevalo also said she did not receive a legal rights presentation in Dilley.
Asked about Arevalo's case, ICE referred Reuters to its statement that all the residents in question were informed of their legal rights.
She avoided deportation when she was taken off a plane days later by U.S. authorities along with her two children moments before it left for El Salvador.
Arevalo’s mother had contacted a lawyer who convinced an immigration judge to put an emergency hold on her deportation, she said. Arevalo suffers from a form of epilepsy that is induced by stress, said Allen Keller, a doctor who examined her at Dilley.
Keller told Reuters someone with her level of epilepsy should not have been targeted for deportation. An ICE spokesman said they can't provide information on medical issues and declined to comment.
"It was arguably not safe to be putting her on a flight, let alone a flight to a violent environment that could trigger her seizures," Keller said.
While the number of asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has surged by 212 percent between 2010 and 2014, the number of people granted asylum has lagged, rising only by 64 percent, according to Justice Department data.
The Obama administration announced last month that it would open centers in the region where Central Americans can apply for refugee status rather than making the dangerous trip to the United States where they may not be granted asylum.
Increasingly, lawyers say, asylum seekers from Central America and the Middle East face a breakdown in due process as backlogs increase while judges and lawyers are in short supply.
“The underlying system does not give asylum seekers a real chance to tell their stories," said Kevin Appleby, director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies.
(Additional reporting by Alistair Bell in Washington and Fiona Ortiz in Chicago. Editing by Jason Szep and Stuart Grudgings)