(New York) – A lawsuit filed on August 2, 2010, underscores the need for the federal government to provide lawyers and additional safeguards to people with mental disabilities in immigration courts, Human Rights Watch said today. The suit seeks to establish the right to a lawyer for people who currently must defend themselves against deportation without legal assistance, even when they are unable to participate in court hearings or understand why they are facing deportation.
The suit was filed in federal central district court in Los Angeles, on behalf of immigration detainees with mental disabilities facing deportation. It comes one week after a joint report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) about the problems people with mental disabilities face during deportation proceedings. The remedies the suit seeks include appointment of counsel, competency evaluations, and a standard for competency so that immigration judges can determine when safeguards are necessary.
“This lawsuit is a move to keep people from being deported unfairly,” said Sarah Mehta, Aryeh Neier fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, and author of the report. “For many people with mental disabilities, having to face an immigration judge alone and try to present their claims is a nightmare.”
The suit was filed by the ACLU Immigrants Rights Project, ACLU of Southern California, ACLU of San Diego, Public Counsel Law Center, Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, and the law firm Sullivan and Cromwell.
The suit began with the case of Jose Antonio Franco, a legal permanent resident with severe cognitive disabilities who has been threatened with deportation. Franco had no lawyer at his initial immigration hearings. The judge found he was not capable of representing himself in further immigration proceedings, ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to conduct a mental health evaluation, and administratively closed the case.
Five years later, Franco remained in detention, without having received a mental health evaluation. He was finally released from detention on March 31, although his deportation remains pending.
In addition to Franco, several of the other detainees who are represented in the lawsuit have been lost in the immigration court and detention system due to the failure of the Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is a part, and the Department of Justice to develop protections for people with mental disabilities.
The defendants in the suit are Attorney General Eric Holder; Thomas G. Snow, acting director of the Executive Office of Immigration Review; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; John Morton, assistant secretary of ICE; and Timothy S. Robbins, ICE field office director for the Los Angeles District. All were sued in their official capacities.
When an immigrant clearly needs help because he cannot answer basic questions like where he was born or what the date is, judges understandably feel they cannot continue with the case,” Mehta said. “So immigrants languish in detention for years while their legal files – and their lives – are put on indefinite hold.”