For Mentally Ill Immigrants, Help May Be on the Way

For immigrants seeking to avoid deportation and stay in theUS, appearing in Immigration Court is often the most daunting part of acomplicated process that can take years to complete. While immigrants have aright to have an attorney represent them on their applications for asylum,cancellation of removal, and other forms of immigration relief, the governmentdoes not provide lawyers free of charge to those who can’t afford one. Thus themajority of immigrants, and the vast majority of immigrants who are held inimmigration detention facilities, represent themselves in Immigration Courtwithout a lawyer. Their hopes of staying in the US – which in many cases meansthe difference between life and death – hinge on their ability to argue complexlegal points against experienced immigration attorneys backed by the fullresources of the US government.

For most immigrants, this is a difficult task. But for thosesuffering from serious mental illness, it is virtually impossible. Withoutsomeone to speak on their behalf, the mentally ill are often unable toarticulate why they should be allowed to stay in the US. Mentally illimmigrants who are detained may see their conditions worsen while in detention,while those who are not detained may have a difficult time appearing for theirhearings in Immigration Court, putting them at risk for deportation. In short, thosewho may be most likely to be persecuted upon returning to their home countriesare at the greatest risk of being deported.

Last Friday, Representative Pete Stark introduced a bill inthe House of Representatives aimed at rectifying this injustice. The “Ensuring Mental Competence in Immigration Proceedings Act” (H.R. 3881), would allow ImmigrationJudges to order competency hearings during Immigration Court proceedings andterminate proceedings against immigrants who are not competent to representthemselves. If a judge chooses not to terminate proceedings, the Act wouldrequire the judge to appoint counsel to any unrepresented immigrants who areincompetent to represent themselves. The National Association of ImmigrationJudges, who members must spend significant amounts of time guiding mentally illimmigrants through Immigration Court proceedings, issued a letter[pdf] in support of the Act’s goals. And PHR was proudto sign onto another letter[pdf] urging other members of Congress to co-sponsor this importantlegislation.

While comprehensive immigration reform seems to be a longway off, small steps like this are vital for building a fairer and more humaneimmigration system and reducing the enormous backlog in Immigration Courts. "Our current system,” says Representative Stark, “is failingimmigrants with mental illness at a cost to the American taxpayer. Too often,mentally ill immigrants — sometimes U.S. citizens — get deported unfairly orthey end up stuck in costly and inhumane detention. My bill will help remedythese problems." PHR urges Congress to swiftlypass this legislation and show that the US can still protect the mostvulnerable among us.

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