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Urgent: Citizens and Immigrants with Mental Disabilities Need Congress's Attention

Chris Rickerd,
Senior Policy Counsel,
ACLU National Political Advocacy Department
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February 2, 2012

Mark Lyttle, a native-born U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent with mental disabilities, was deported after an immigration court hearing in 2008 at which he had no lawyer. Despite the fact that he spoke no Spanish and was known to have spent time in a psychiatric hospital, he endured more than four months of living on the streets and in the shelters and prisons of Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Jose Antonio Franco-Gonzalez, an immigrant from Mexico with severe cognitive disabilities, was declared incompetent by an immigration court in 2005 when he had no lawyer. His case was closed and he was forgotten in detention for four-and-a-half years, at a cost likely exceeding $300,000.

And Guillermo Gomez Sanchez, a lawful permanent resident of the United States and native of Mexico who has paranoid schizophrenia, also spent four-and-a-half years in immigration detention after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) failed to administer a psychiatric evaluation. They and other detainees inspired a pending class action lawsuit by the ACLU of Southern California and its litigation partners in California, Arizona and Washington.

The three horrors described are examples of the suffering that occurs all too commonly when U.S. citizens and immigrants with mental disabilities are lost, sometimes for years, in an unfair and disorganized immigration system. As a comprehensive Human Rights Watch/ACLU report documented in 2010, the lack of due process protections for individuals with mental disabilities in the immigration system leads to frequent wrongful detentions and deportations. The federal government has failed to adopt and implement standards to ensure fair immigration court hearings for individuals with mental disabilities.

The common elements in these cases are the absence of attorneys and the government’s failure to evaluate mental health adequately. Today, Rep. Pete Stark introduced H.R. 3881, the Ensuring Mental Competence in Immigration Proceedings Act. This legislation would fix this problem and improve the choices available to individuals with mental disabilities in immigration court by increasing their proceedings’ fairness.

Rep. Stark’s bill clarifies immigration judges’ existing authority by recognizing their basic tools for achieving due process: they may order competency evaluations and either terminate cases when it would be unfair to proceed or require the appointment of counsel (84 percent of immigration detainees lack attorneys).

Currently, immigration judges who terminate proceedings risk government appeals, which prolong both the cases and expensive detention. Rep. Stark’s legislation would simultaneously reduce detention costs, which exceed $60,000 annually per person, and also ameliorate the overwhelming case backlog in immigration courts.

Rep. Stark’s bill would benefit all stakeholders who aspire to an accurate and efficient immigration system that respects due process. The ACLU urges Congress to pass it swiftly so that abusive treatment of citizens and immigrants with mental disabilities is no longer a regular characteristic of our immigration system.

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