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Compounded Vulnerability: Neglect of Detainees with Disabilities in U.S. Immigration Facilities

Aron Cobbs,
Human Rights Program
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July 30, 2010

Immigration Detention:

July 26, 2010 marked the 20 th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The passage of the ADA, as well as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, has made the U.S. a self-proclaimed global leader in disability rights. The U.S. government is justifiably proud of the progress it has made in protecting the rights of people with disabilities in the workplace, healthcare, education and public accommodations — all critical domains covered by the ADA.

In the immigration sphere, however, the U.S. has yet to provide similar substantive protections through U.S. constitutional law and international human rights standards. A joint ACLU/Human Rights Watch report released this week, Deportation by Default, revealed that people across the country with mental disabilities — U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, asylum seekers, and refugees — face a greater risk of wrongful deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) because courts do not ensure fair hearings for those unable to represent themselves without support. Advocates in both the disability and immigrants’ rights communities are urging Congress to pass legislation that would establish safeguards, including appointed counsel, for all those with mental disabilities in immigration courts.

There is an overwhelming need for persons with disabilities in immigration detention to have greater access to justice, as even immigration judges and other officials appear to appreciate. The report, based on 104 interviews with ICE detainees, their families, social workers, psychiatrists, immigration attorneys, judges and rights advocates, states that detainees with mental disabilities–ranging from intellectual disabilities to p ost-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)–often remain in custody for years on end with no legal limits. Some of the detainees interviewed didn’t even know their own names, let alone the meaning or consequences of “deportation.” Sarah Mehta , Aryeh Neier fellow at HRW/ACLU and the report’s author, said, “No one knows what to do with detainees with mental disabilities, so every part of the immigration system has abdicated responsibility. The result is people languishing in detention for years while their legal files – and their lives – are transferred around or put on indefinite hold.”

Last year, President Obama signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), reinforcing U.S. commitment to this vulnerable group. We hope that both the administration and Congress will continue the progress made under the ADA and act quickly to ratify CRPD, bringing much needed reform and rights protection to detainees with disabilities.

To download a podcast on this issue, including an interview with a former
detainee, please visit:

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