By Cindy Carcamo, Doug Irving, and Eric Carpenter
A 29-year-old Costa Mesa man with a mental disability has been held in immigration detention for five years without due process, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California announced Friday.
Jose Antonio Franco Gonzalez, who has moderate mental retardation that keeps him from telling time and knowing his own birthday, is one of two men with mental disabilities who civil rights officials say are being held without due process at the Otay-Mesa detention facility in San Diego County.
Jose Antonio Franco Gonzalez
But ICE’s western regional spokeswoman, Virginia Kice, said her agency is working on “sweeping reforms” as to the way immigration detainees are housed that “will enhance medical and mental health conditions.”
“We don’t detain for punitive reasons,” she said.
Friday morning, ACLU officials announced a petition asking for the men’s release and accusing the federal government of holding them without due process and in violation of federal discrimination laws designed to help protect people with disabilities.
“These men were completely forgotten in the immigration prison system, their cases neglected for years,’’ said Ahilan Arulanantham, director of immigrant rights and national security for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California in a written statement. “In other words, they were punished for having a mental disability.
“Nobody tracked their cases, or even knew why they were detained,’’ he said in the statement. “It’s a nightmare no family should face, but many will unless there’s true detention reform that creates standards to deal with individuals with mental disabilities.”
Some of Franco’s family members attended the ACLU announcement.
His brother Ruben Franco said the family visits Franco in jail and he routinely asks: “When am I going to be able to go home?”
“He doesn’t comprehend what he’s going through,” Ruben Franco said. “He doesn’t know why he’s in jail.”
His mother, Maria Franco, held a photo of her son.
“We miss him. We miss him a lot,” she said.
Talia Inlender, an attorney handling Franco’s case, she would seek asylum for Franco on grounds that his family now lives here and he would likely be put in an institution if he were sent back to Mexico. Conditions in those institutions, she said, are “horrific.”
“Other than to his family, he was completely lost to the world,” Inlender said.
The other detainee is Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez, 48, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Immigration officials have held him since December 2005.
In both cases a judge found the men incompetent to face proceedings, essentially halting their immigration cases, according to the ACLU’s petition.
In turn, immigration officials kept the two men in detention and in conditions that exacerbated their mental disabilities, according to ACLU officials
The two men are part of an estimated 15 percent of all immigration detainees who have mental disabilities, according to the ACLU.
Unlike the nation’s criminal justice system, the immigration system has no standard procedures to resolve cases against detainees with mental disabilities who have been ruled incompetent to follow the proceedings against them.
“The petitions filed today aim to end the haphazard approach that has led to such tragic circumstances for Mr. Franco and Mr. Gomez-Sanchez, and which could undoubtedly lead to other, similar cases,” ACLU officials said in a statement.
Both men are citizens of Mexico and are in the process of obtaining legal permanent residency status, according to the petition.
Franco, who has trouble counting and has the cognitive level of a child as young as 2, was first arrested in April 2004 after he got in the middle of a fight between to rival gangs, according to the petition.
He was arrested on suspicion of throwing a rock during the fight, causing an abrasion on the cheek of a victim. He served a year in jail after he pleaded guilty to a charge of assault with a deadly weapon, the petition states.
After he completed his jail term, he was transferred to immigration custody and put through removal proceedings in April 2005, ACLU officials said.
About a month later, according to the petition, a psychiatric evaluation of Franco determined that “he had no clue as to what type of court Your Honor presided over, what the possible outcomes might be, or how to defend himself at trial. Diagnostically, he has a severe cognitive disturbance, probably life-long, secondary to development disability. In view of this, it is impossible for him to stand trial.’’
An immigration judge agreed and closed immigration removal proceedings against Franco, the petition states.
Franco, who didn’t learn to speak until he was about 6 years old and had trouble counting, remained in custody for about four and a half years without any removal proceedings against him, ACLU officials stated.
No hearing was held to determine whether he was a danger of flight risk that would justify detention, ACLU officials contend.
Instead, the petition accuses immigration officials of treating Franco as if he did not have a mental impairment and put him in with the general detainee population at San Pedro Detention Facility and later in the Santa Ana City Jail, where ACLU officials said he was mistreated because of his disability.
Santa Ana officials were not immediately available for comment.
About three months ago, the federal government moved to reopen Franco’s case for removal proceedings but since then officials have delayed proceedings twice, ACLU officials contend.
ACLU officials say Franco’s family members who live in Costa Mesa have the financial resources to care for the man and that he should be released into their custody.