Press Releases

August 02, 2010

Lawsuit On Behalf of Detained Immigrants with Mental Disabilities Filed


LOS ANGELES – The nation's first class action lawsuit on behalf of immigrant detainees with severe mental disabilities – detainees who are defenseless in a system they cannot comprehend -- was filed late Monday by a coalition of legal organizations led by Public Counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, and Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. Others participating in the suit include the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial County, Northwest Immigrants’ Rights Project, and Mental Health Advocacy Services.

The suit asks a federal district court here to order the U.S. government to create a system for determining which non-citizens lack the mental competence to represent themselves and to appoint legal representation for those who are unable to defend themselves. Unlike the criminal court system – where appointed counsel is part of due process -- immigration courts and detention facilities have no safeguards for ensuring that the rights of people with serious mental disabilities are protected.

“This broken system unjustly ruins the lives of detainees and their families,” said Talia Inlender, staff attorney with Los Angeles-based Public Counsel. “Our country’s values demand that we provide fair treatment for detained immigrants with serious mental disabilities.”

The suit grew out of the case of one man, Jose Franco-Gonzalez, who was the subject of a habeas petition filed last March. Mr. Franco was lost in detention facilities in California for nearly five years because of the government’s failure to account for his mental retardation. His case came to the attention of Public Counsel, who launched a program in November 2008 to provide legal services for detained immigrants at the Santa Ana City Jail, where Mr. Franco was being held. Ms. Inlender explained that, “Mr. Franco sat in jail for years with no immigration case pending against him and no opportunity to seek release before a judge. He was simply forgotten by a system that has no mechanism to deal with people who suffer from mental disabilities. Unfortunately, his case is not unique.”

The six immigrants represented in the suit filed today are from California and Washington, and all have been diagnosed with severe mental disabilities, such as schizophrenia, depression, and mental retardation. Several have been found incompetent to stand trial in other court proceedings.

“Our Constitution and our laws demand fair treatment for people with severe mental disabilities,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, director of immigrants’ rights and national security for the ACLU/SC. “If someone cannot understand the proceedings against them, due process requires that they be given a lawyer to help them.”

The exact number of detainees with severe mental disabilities is unclear, but some reports estimate that at least two to five percent of the immigrants detained by immigration authorities nationwide – or 7,000 to 19,000 individuals – might have a serious mental disability.

“The problem worsens day by day as the detention centers swell with more detainees,” said Michael Steinberg, a partner of Sullivan & Cromwell. “Ignoring the needs of those suffering from mental illnesses only debases our system of justice.”
The widespread failure of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to implement such a system and provide court-appointed attorneys to those with serious disabilities was recently documented in a report jointly published by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch.