Immigrants with Mental Disabilities Lost in Detention for Years

March 25, 2010 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES, Calif. – For five years, two men with mental disabilities have languished in immigration detention, effectively lost in a system that has no established procedures to determine whether they should be released or whether their cases should be resolved in another way.

Today, two affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union, Public Counsel in Los Angeles and the Casa Cornelia Law Center in San Diego filed petitions in U.S. Federal District Courts in Southern California charging that the government has deprived the two men of their constitutional right to due process, and violated both the immigration statute under which they were detained and federal discrimination laws designed to protect people with disabilities.

In both cases, an immigration judge found the men incompetent to face proceedings, and their immigration cases ground to a complete halt. But instead of releasing them to the custody of family members or providing them with release hearings, immigration officials insisted on keeping the two men locked up, often in conditions that only exacerbated their already vulnerable mental states.

“These men were completely forgotten in the immigration prison system, their cases neglected for years. In other words, they were punished for having a mental disability,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, director of immigrant rights and national security for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “Nobody tracked their cases, or even knew why they were detained. It’s a nightmare no family should face, but many will unless there’s true detention reform that creates standards to deal with individuals with mentally disabilities.”

Jose Antonio Franco Gonzalez, the 29-year-old son of lawful permanent residents, suffers from mental retardation severe enough that he doesn’t know his own age or birthday, and cannot tell time or dial phone numbers. Mr. Franco has been held in various detention facilities around Southern California, including a jail in Santa Ana, since April 2005. He has remained in custody despite the fact that a judge closed his immigration case nearly five years ago after finding him mentally incompetent to understand the proceedings against him. The government did not move to reopen his case until three months ago. Mr. Franco has not been given a bond hearing to determine whether he presents a danger that would justify his prolonged detention, or whether his detention is even appropriate in light of his disability.

“It’s horrifying that a man with a serious mental disability could languish in detention for such an extraordinary length of time without an open immigration case against him and without even a simple bond hearing,” said Talia Inlender, a staff attorney with Public Counsel, who met Mr. Franco through her work running a legal clinic at a local immigration detention center, and has been advocating for months to secure his release. “An immigration system that detains a man like Mr. Franco for years without any kind of process is a system that violates the constitutional principles upon which this country is based.”

Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez is a 48-year-old man who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He has been held by immigration officials since December 2005. An immigration judge administratively closed his case for two-and-a-half years after the Department of Homeland Security failed to administer a psychiatric evaluation of him. When the case was reopened in June 2008, a judge ordered Mr. Gomez-Sanchez released on a $5,000 bond. But attorneys for the DHS challenged the bond order, even though Mr. Gomez-Sanchez was found to be neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community.

“It is outrageous that our immigration prison system drops individuals with mental disabilities like Mr. Gomez-Sanchez into a legal black hole for years on end,” said Sean Riordan, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “It is particularly tragic that Mr. Gomez-Sanchez remains in detention, because an immigration judge has already determined that he is not a danger and should be in his family’s care.”

An estimated 15 percent of all immigration detainees have a mental disability. Yet, unlike our nation’s criminal justice system, the immigration system has no standard procedures to resolve cases against detainees with mental disabilities who have been ruled incompetent to follow the proceedings against them. The petitions filed today aim to end the haphazard approach that has led to such tragic circumstances for Mr. Franco and Mr. Gomez-Sanchez, and which could undoubtedly lead to other, similar cases.

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