Federal authorities are increasingly deporting illegal immigrants through a fast-track program that bypasses court hearings, an effort by the federal government to save money, reduce backlogs and clear detention beds.
The number of detainees in California and across the nation who agreed to be deported without first seeing a judge jumped fivefold between 2004 and 2007, from 5,481 to nearly 31,554. In the first half of 2008, 17,445 speedy deportation orders were signed.
Nearly half of all such orders since 1999 were issued in three locations -- Lancaster; Los Fresnos, Texas, and Eloy, Ariz., according to federal data provided to the Stanford Law School Immigrants' Rights Clinic as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.
Attorneys, advocates and judges have raised concerns about the dramatic rise in fast-track deportations, saying they have resulted in many immigrants being deported without knowing their rights or understanding the consequences.
"That is everyone's underlying concern -- is there due process here?" said Gilbert T. Gembacz, a retired immigration judge in Los Angeles. "Are people getting a full explanation? Are they getting a case-by-case review of all their options? I don't think they are. I think they are being told, 'Hi. You're here illegally, and we are going to send you back.' "
Jayashri Srikantiah, the director of the Stanford clinic, which has sued the federal government to get more information, said some detainees are pressured to sign the deportation forms even though they may have defenses against deportation or be eligible for asylum or green cards. About 95% of the people who agreed to the speedy deportations since 1999 are not represented by attorneys, she said.
"We have people mostly who are in detention in remote locations, without lawyers, who are non-English speakers, and they are being asked to sign away their rights," Srikantiah said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities in Los Angeles counter that the program is voluntary and that deportation officers clearly explain to detainees their options, including the choice to see a judge. They said the program, known as "stipulated removal," saves the government money and prevents immigrants from having to stay in detention when they would probably be deported by a judge anyway.
If they agree to stipulated removal, they often can be returned to their native country within a few days or weeks. Challenging their deportation, however, could take months.
Among the recent detainees deported to Mexico with stipulated removal were two men, one who served time for robbery and another who spent years behind bars for assault and lewd and lascivious acts, immigration authorities said.
"It allows those who have no form of relief to return to their home country as quickly as possible," said Brian DeMore, the agency's Los Angeles field office director of detention and removal.
"It is a very economical way for us to do business because people don't spend a lot of time in detention."
Even though the fast-track deportations have been available for more than a decade, they were not widely used until 2004. Julie Myers, former head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency wanted to speed up deportations and started looking at all the tools that Congress had made available.
"This was one that we believed had been underutilized," she said.
Myers said she was concerned, however, that the procedures for using stipulated removals differed from region to region and urged the government to make the process uniform across the nation.
In the Los Angeles area, immigration officials started using the process in large numbers after a large-scale protest at Mira Loma in 2005, when 950 federal detainees upset over delays in deportation proceedings refused to return to their barracks.
Officers at the Mira Loma detention center in Lancaster deport about 130 foreign nationals each month through stipulated removal, or about one-third of the total deportations from the facility. The vast majority of the local detainees who agree to stipulated removals, DeMore said, are criminals and are not eligible to stay in the United States.
At Lancaster, the detainees sign a form, in both English and Spanish, saying they understand they are giving up their right to a court hearing and that they may be prevented from legally returning to the U.S. for at least 10 years. That form is reviewed by a government attorney and then given to the judge, along with any other information available on the detainee, authorities said.
Catholic Charities of Los Angeles' Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project gives presentations three times a week at the Mira Loma facility informing detainees of their rights, but director Julianne Donnelly said she believes that many immigrants sign the forms before they have had a chance to attend a presentation.