A Step Toward Lawyers for Mentally Ill Immigrants

Immigrants, especially those with mental disabilities, facenearly insurmountable odds in trying to prevent their deportation and gainlegal status in the US. US immigration law is a complicated jumble of statutesenacted over the past 60 years that is in desperate need of wholesale reform.The Immigration Courts are severely understaffed, and the huge backlog of casesmeans that many immigrants spend years in limbo before a judge decides whetherthey can stay in the US. Immigrants who have been convicted of crimes, as wellthose who arrive at the border seeking asylum, are kept in immigrationdetention centers that are often purposely constructed in remote locations, faraway from legal service providers. While the law allows immigrants to hireattorneys, the government does not provide lawyers to immigrants who cannotafford to hire a private attorney.

The end result is that the vast majority of detainedimmigrants are forced to represent themselves in Immigration Court. For most,this is a daunting task; for those with serious mental disabilities, who maynot even understand what is happening to them, it is next to impossible.

The good news is for detained immigrants with serious mentaldisabilities in California, Arizona, and Washington, help may be on the way. Afederal judge in California recently certified a class action lawsuit thatwould force the government to provide attorneys for detained immigrants withserious mental disabilities. While the government does not track how manyimmigrants fall into this category, it is estimated that about 1,000 of thenearly 33,400 immigrants who are detained every day have a severe mentaldisability. Most of them are likely to be unrepresented. With no system inplace to provide attorneys for detained immigrants, those with mentalillnesses, including some who are actually US citizens, are at high risk ofbeing deported without a meaningful chance to contest their removal from theUS.

The outcome of this lawsuit, Franco v. Napolitano, is far fromcertain. But the fact that a federal judge granted class certification meansthat the problem is too big to ignore any longer. While an Immigration Judgecannot sentence someone to prison or order him to pay a fine, in many cases thestakes in Immigration Court are much higher. The assistance of a competent,committed lawyer for detained immigrants is vital; for those with seriousmental disabilities, a lawyer could be the difference between life and death.

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