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Judge Orders Mental Disability Screenings for Immigrants Held by U.S. Without Attorneys

To ensure that the rights of immigrants with mental disabilities are honored, a federal judge has ordered the U.S. government to implement a comprehensive system for identifying and protecting individuals with serious mental disorders in immigration detention centers in California, Arizona and Washington. U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee’s detailed order requires the government to screen all immigrant detainees for mental disabilities and to conduct hearings with the aid of forensic competency evaluations to determine if they are unable to represent themselves in court.

Click here to read the court order (pdf)

“The court's ruling dramatically alters the landscape for the tens of thousands of detainees who move through our immigration jails each year,” said Talia Inlender, staff attorney at Public Counsel. “For the first time ever, the U.S. government will be required to rigorously screen and evaluate detainees for serious mental disabilities that render them voiceless in court, and to provide those unable to represent themselves with legal representation. This clear system will ensure that what happened to Jose Franco-Gonzalez, a man with a serious cognitive disability who languished for nearly five years in an immigration jail without fair process, will never happen again.”

The court’s ruling comes in Franco v. Holder, a class-action lawsuit filed by groups on behalf of immigrants including Jose Franco-Gonzalez, who was held in detention for nearly five years without an attorney. Last year Judge Gee ordered the U.S. to provide legal representation for all immigrants who are found unable to represent themselves in deportation hearings. This order sets forth a clear system for determining which immigrants are entitled to legal representation, and includes the first detailed standard for assessing competency to represent oneself in the federal court system.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee gave the government 90 days to comply with the court order.

•    Immigration and Customs Enforcement must begin mental disability screenings of all immigrants by qualified medical personnel within 14 days of their admission to its custody.

•    ICE and detention facility personnel must also provide the ICE Office of the Chief Counsel with relevant information concerning detainees’ mental health, including any information that a detainee has been housed in a medical unit or hospitalized for a mental illness.

•    ICE Office of Chief Counsel must in turn share evidence of a person’s mental disability with the Immigration Judge hearing that person’s deportation case.

•    Immigration judges must conduct competency hearings when evidence shows a detainee has a severe mental health condition or mental disorder, and must order forensic competency evaluations where necessary to inform competency determinations.

•    Immigration judges and forensic evaluators must follow a detailed “pro se competency standard” for analyzing whether an individual with a serious mental disorder is able to represent him- or herself. Developed with the input of forensic psychiatrists, this is the first such detailed standard of its kind in the federal court system.

•    Reiterates prior order’s requirement that immigration courts must appoint legal representation for a person found incompetent to represent him or herself within 60 days.

Click here to read the judge's order (pdf).