LOS ANGELES – The nation's first class action lawsuit on behalf of immigrant detainees with severe mental disabilities was filed in a federal court in Los Angeles late Monday by a coalition of legal organizations led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU/SC), Public Counsel and Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. The lawsuit argues that the U.S. government must create a system for determining which non-citizens lack the mental competence to represent themselves in immigration proceedings and to appoint legal representation to those with severe disabilities.
Others participating in the lawsuit include the ACLU, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, Northwest Immigration Rights Project and Mental Health Advocacy Services.
"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."
Unlike the criminal court system – where counsel is appointed as 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.
The six immigrants represented in the lawsuit are from California and Washington and have all 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.
One of them, Jose Antonio Franco, was lost in detention facilities in California for nearly five years because of the government's failure to account for his mental retardation. Another, Ever Francisco Martinez-Rivas, a 31-year-old lawful permanent resident who came to the U.S. at the age of nine, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia so severe that he gets confused when given simple directions. Martinez-Rivas has been deemed by a physician "a gravely disabled person," yet the government intends to deport him without providing him with a lawyer or having his mental state evaluated.
"This broken system unjustly ruins the lives of detainees and their families. Our country's values demand that we provide fair treatment for detained immigrants with serious mental disabilities," said Talia Inlender, a staff attorney with Public Counsel.
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 case, Franco-Gonzales et al. v. Holder et al., was filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Attorneys on the case include Arulanantham and Jennifer Stark of the ACLU/SC, Judy London and Inlender of Public Counsel, Steinberg of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, Judy Rabinovitz of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, David Blair-Loy and Sean Riordan of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, James Preis of Mental Health Advocacy Services, and Matt Adams and Riddhi Mukopadhyay of Northwest Immigrants' Rights Project.
The complaint can be found at: www.aclu.org/immigrants-rights/franco-gonzales-et-al-v-holder-et-al-first-amended-class-action-complaint
The widespread failure of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to implement a system to indentify immigrant detainees who have severe mental disabilities and provide court-appointed attorneys to them was recently documented in a report jointly published by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch. The report can be found at: www.aclu.org/human-rights/deportation-default-mental-disability-unfair-hearings-and-indefinite-detention-us-immig