Every day, immigration detainees with severe mental disabilities are denied the basic legal representation they deserve. They slip through the cracks of our immigration system – unassisted, yet incapable of representing themselves. They suffer through unjust proceedings, and many of them are unlawfully deported – separated from their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, often the only people on Earth who know and love them.
In January of 2013, the government deported Martin1, a long-time lawful permanent resident of the United States, even though Martin was incompetent to represent himself in his immigration proceedings. During a so-called "competency hearing," Martin stated that he thought it was his right to be with the president of the United States, and interrupted the judge during his proceedings to ask about the date and the month. But the immigration judge found Martin competent and ordered him deported to Mexico. He remains in Mexico to this day, separated from his family and from those who can care for him. Dozens of people like Martin remain stuck in the deportation machine every day.
A glimmer of hope appeared after a landmark ruling in April, when a federal court in the Central District of California issued a ruling that individuals who are unable to represent themselves in their immigration proceedings because of a serious mental disability must be provided legal representation. On April 22, 2013, in response to the imminent ruling the Court on Franco, the government announced plans to completely revamp their system for identifying and protecting the rights of immigrants who suffer from serious mental disabilities.
But justice for these most vulnerable individuals remains elusive. The Court ordered the government to design and implement a plan to identify individuals with serious mental disorders who should benefit from this ruling, but despite ample opportunity to develop and implement a plan, the government came back empty-handed. The so-called “plan” submitted by the government was nothing more than a series of promises – to develop a better screening system, provide forensic evaluations (in some unidentified set of cases) and give more procedural safeguards at some point in the future. But the government has been defending a lawsuit asking for those same protections for three years, and has continued to detain and deport people during that entire time.
Although the Court has already ruled that individuals unable to represent themselves must be provided legal representation, the promise of justice for immigrants with serious disabilities remains illusory, and the Court’s ruling, largely meaningless without a functioning system for identifying immigrants who suffer from serious mental disabilities.
We have submitted our own plan to screen for and identify individuals with serious mental disabilities and have asked the Court to order the government to adopt it. It is a shame that the Obama Administration has continued to resist all efforts to provide justice for the most vulnerable immigrants. Hopefully, the Court will once more force the government to do what it should have done long ago – create an immigration system that recognizes the unique needs of the most vulnerable amongst us, a system that truly reflects our nation’s values.
1 Pseudonyms are used to protect the identity of this individual.
Ahilan Arulanantham is Deputy Legal Director and Carmen Iguina is Equal Justice Works Fellow and Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Southern California Follow @ahilan_toolong on Twitter