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U.S. government's use of ankle monitors on immigrant mothers draws criticism

An immigrant from El Salvador that entered the country illegally wears an ankle monitor at a shelter, Monday, July 27, 2015, in San Antonio. Lawyers representing immigrant mothers held in a South Texas detention center say the women have been denied counsel and coerced into accepting ankle-monitoring bracelets as a condition of release, even after judges made clear that paying their bonds would suffice. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

An immigrant from El Salvador that entered the country illegally wears an ankle monitor at a shelter, Monday, July 27, 2015, in San Antonio. Lawyers representing immigrant mothers held in a South Texas detention center say the women have been denied counsel and coerced into accepting ankle-monitoring bracelets as a condition of release, even after judges made clear that paying their bonds would suffice. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Ana Rodriguez was recently released from an immigrant family detention center in Berks, Pa. after a year of being held there with her 12-year-old daughter.

She and her child were among the tens of thousands of women and minors who left Central America and arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border last summer, creating what Obama administration officials declared a crisis.

The 35-year-old mother from Guatemala, who is seeking asylum based on a claim of fleeing domestic violence in a nation where she could not get protection from authorities, is now with her sister in Chicago pending the resolution of her case. But, even though she is out of detention, Rodriguez hardly feels free.

There is – always -- the cumbersome and conspicuous ankle prison monitor that is affixed to her. The ankle monitors use global positioning technology.

We were traumatized, abused in Guatemala. We were terrified, we fled. And we get arrested and put in jail for one year. We were treated like criminals – mothers and children, kept in a jail.

- Ana Rodriguez

“This is humiliating,” Rodriguez said in a telephone interview with Fox News Latino. “I am not a criminal. My child wants to know why I am being forced to wear it. I tell her I really can’t give her an explanation that will help her understand.”

“None of this makes sense,” Rodriguez said. “We were traumatized, abused in Guatemala. We were terrified, we fled. And we get arrested and put in jail for one year. We were treated like criminals – mothers and children, kept in a jail."

In recent weeks, in the face of mounting political pressure and a federal lawsuit challenging the detention of children, U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement began moving families through the centers faster, allowing many women to receive ankle monitors instead of paying bonds.

Last Friday a federal judge in California ruled that detaining children in these centers violates the terms of a 1997 settlement, and that families needed to be released rapidly.

Now, lawyers are challenging the way ICE is using ankle monitors on the women who are being released.

Lawyers representing immigrant mothers held in a South Texas detention center, for instance, say the women have been denied counsel and coerced into accepting ankle-monitoring bracelets as a condition of release, even after judges made clear that paying their bonds would suffice.

In a letter Monday to Sarah Saldana, ICE director, the leaders of a volunteer lawyers' project said they were "dismayed by the lack of transparency, and the coercion, disorganization, and confusion" surrounding recent releases. 

Among the irregularities cited were summons to courtrooms scrawled on yellow sticky notes, no counsel or judge present in court, and women being told that the prior word of immigration judges "has no value."

ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a statement that the agency would review the claims and "respond directly" to the lawyers. "ICE takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care," the statement added.

Between 70 and 100 women were called into courtrooms at the 50-acre Dilley campus last week and told by ICE officials that they could be released with ankle monitors in lieu of bond, according to a motion filed by R. Andrew Free, a Nashville lawyer working with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project.

ICE appears to want ankle monitors on the majority of women released, Free said in an interview. The agency's actions "are misleading people about their rights," he said.

Three women wearing ankle monitors waited Monday in a San Antonio home for the bus tickets that would get them to family members in other cities. One woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name of Eliud out of fear of reprisals, said that she left Honduras with her two teenage sons, who were being forced into a gang.

She said she would rather not be wearing the ankle monitor, which itches her skin and keeps her up at night, but wasn't given a choice.

"When people see me, the first thing they see is this (ankle monitor) and they think I am a criminal," she said.

Laura Lichter, a Denver immigration attorney volunteering at Dilley, said that in her 20 years of practice she has never seen ICE add a monitoring device or impose other conditions after an immigration judge has set bond. She said the bracelet monitors required constant charging and were another tacit attempt at deterrence.

"There is a stigma," Lichter said. "Everyone is going to think that they are criminals."

Ana Rodriguez made national headlines last month after she and her daughter were wrongly deported, outraging a federal judge who ordered them to be returned immediately. ICE officials awoke the mother and child in the early morning one day in June, took them out of the family detention center where they were in Pennsylvania and put them on a plane out of the country.

“I was scared, my daughter was scared,” she said. “It was abrupt, no advance notice. We asked where we were going, they said they didn’t know. They wouldn’t tell us anything.”

The judge said he would granted a request by Rodriguez’s attorney to block deportation if he had known that it was imminent.

Her attorney told Fox News Latino last month that ICE deported her client knowing full well that there was an emergency request to stop any deportation effort while the asylum request was pending.

She argued that ICE should have informed the court of its intentions, and the judge agreed.

Free said his client was among those called into a courtroom to sign the agreement, though a judge had recently reduced her bond from $7,000 to $1,500, which she'd planned on paying.

A deportation officer said that even after her bond was paid, an ankle-monitoring device would also be placed on her, according to the motion. She asked to speak to her lawyer but was denied. Two similar situations were cited in affidavits, and Free added that he has heard of at least a dozen similar cases.

Free said he did not oppose women having the choice of a bracelet or bond but that "we want that choice free of coercion and duress." Pushing the monitors is an abuse of authority, he said, that "threatens the entire immigration court process."

After the tens of thousands of migrant mothers and their children crossed the Rio Grande last summer the administration opened two large detention centers, a 500-bed facility in Karnes City and the enormous 2,400-bed facility in Dilley, both south of San Antonio.

A letter signed by the American Immigration Lawyers Association and other immigrant rights groups says that the women are not receiving adequate information from ICE officers about their obligations in the immigration system and that the agency has not responded to the groups' request to have lawyers do pre-release orientations. 

They said this "sets up the women for failure." 

The lawyers say that similar tactics are happening in the facility in Karnes City. Until recently both Dilley and Karnes held about 2,000 people combined.

Last fall ICE privately acknowledged to a group of immigrant advocate organizations that about 70 percent of immigrant families released in the United States never showed up weeks later for follow-up appointments.

In an audio recording of a confidential meeting obtained by The Associated Press, an unidentified ICE official acknowledge the no-show figure while explaining the administration's decision in June 2014 to open a temporary detention facility at the Border Patrol training facility in Artesia, New Mexico. Two family jails were later opened in Texas, and the Artesia facility was closed down. There is a third smaller facility -- where Ana Rodriguez and her daughter spent a year -- in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

The ICE official said during that meeting that it was necessary to detain families to ensure they didn't vanish.

Part of the government's original rationale for opening the detention centers was to deter more women and children from coming to the United States. Many of the families are fleeing escalating gang violence, as well as domestic violence in their home countries, and are seeking asylum here.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.