Federal Court Orders Legal Representation for Immigrant Detainees With Mental Disabilities

Vulnerable Immigrants in Removal Proceedings Unable to Represent Themselves Must Get Counsel and a Hearing

April 23, 2013

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

LOS ANGELES – A federal district judge has ordered the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Attorney General, and the Executive Office of Immigration Review to provide legal representation to immigrant detainees with mental disabilities who are facing deportation and who are unable to adequately represent themselves in immigration hearings. The ruling in the class-action lawsuit is the first of its kind for immigrant detainees, who often languish in detention facilities for years without legal representation.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California today issued an order granting judgment in favor of plaintiffs in the case, Franco-Gonzalez v. Holder, which applies to certain detainees in Arizona, California and Washington. The decision comes more than three years after a lawsuit was filed by José Antonio Franco-Gonzalez, a Mexican immigrant with a cognitive disability who was detained in federal immigration facilities for nearly five years without a hearing or a lawyer. In 2010, Plaintiffs sought to expand the reach of the challenge to the government’s inadequate procedures by converting the lawsuit into a class action.

In the court's ruling, Judge Dolly M. Gee determined that for this class, appointed counsel "is the only means by which they may" defend themselves. Moreover, the Court criticized the government for not having any safeguards to protect this most vulnerable population: "In this case ... the very basis of Plaintiffs' claim is the absence of meaningful procedures to safeguard" detainees with mental disabilities. As a result, the Court ordered that these detainees with serious mental disabilities be provided with qualified representatives at government expense and a bond hearing to avoid prolonged detention.

"Today's ruling ensures that immigrant detainees with mental disabilities finally get the legal representation they need," said Ahilan Arulanantham, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California and the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. "As our country moves to implement common-sense immigration reform, we must insist that the rights of vulnerable groups caught in the immigration prisons are protected. Providing legal representation to people with significant mental disabilities is not only legally sound, but also the only humane way to run our immigration system."

In addition to the ACLU, Public Counsel, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Mental Health Advocacy Services and the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell all represented the class of immigrants who benefit from the court's ruling.

"We are so pleased that, after three years of hard-pressed litigation, we have achieved a milestone of this significance – appointed counsel for one of the most vulnerable populations detained by the government," said Michael H. Stenberg of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, co-lead counsel. "We are also pleased that the district court has so thoughtfully evaluated these issues and has entered an injunction against the government that will ensure a meaningful right to be heard and to not be detained."

"The court's order offers critical protection to vulnerable immigration detainees, which is particularly important here in San Diego where we have a notorious immigration detention facility with a large population of detainees with mental disabilities," said Sean Riordan, staff attorney, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties.

"The court's order today will insure that what happened to José Antonio Franco-Gonzalez will never happen again," said Talia Inlender of Public Counsel. "Judge Gee's order guarantees that those most vulnerable are provided with the legal representation they need to have their fair day in court."

"We welcome today's ruling as a critical step in protecting the rights of individuals with mental disabilities facing removal proceedings while in detention," said Matt Adams, legal director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. "We are pleased that the district court recognized the importance of legal representation in the immigration system and that the court has directed the government to take prompt action to redress crucial flaws in the current system."

Franco-Gonzalez, now 33, was forced to represent himself even though a psychiatrist determined that he had no basic understanding of the immigration proceedings, and did not know how to defend himself.

While judges regularly appoint legal counsel in the criminal court system, immigration courts and detention facilities have no safeguards to ensure representation of immigrants. About 34,000 immigrants are detained daily and government estimates indicate that well over 1,000 of them have mental disabilities of some kind. Prior to today’s ruling, none of these individuals were guaranteed legal representation even though they would have great difficulty trying to represent themselves in the complicated legal proceedings against them.

The ACLU's principles for federal immigration reform include guidelines for addressing systemic due process issues in our nation's growing immigration jail system, and point out the need for providing counsel in immigration proceedings. More than half of individuals in immigration proceedings are unrepresented, including 84% of those in detention.

For more information about Franco-Gonzalez v. Holder, including a copy of today's order: aclu.org/immigrants-rights/franco-gonzales-v-holder

For the ACLU's framework on federal immigration reform: aclu.org/immigrants-rights/aclu-framework-immigration-reform

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