With Liberty and Justice for All?: The US Must Ratify the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities

Twenty years after the groundbreaking passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there has been great progress. Wheelchair-friendly ramps improve access to public buildings, public schools serve many more children with disabilities and many workplaces now accommodate physically and mentally disabled employees. There are hidden places, however, that the principle of equal rights and participation for disabled people has not yet reached. One of the most hidden is the immigration detention system. By failing to provide any consideration or assistance to the mentally disabled, this system violates human rights that are protected by the Covenant on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The US has signed this treaty, but cannot implement it until the Senate ratifies and incorporates it into US law.

Every night the US government detains roughly 32,000 immigrants while it decides their eligibility to remain in the US. While the majority of immigrants are deported or released in a month or two, the most vulnerable can remain in detention for many months or even years.

Antoni P., a green card holder diagnosed with bipolar and personality disorders, has been stuck in immigration detention for an unbelievable ten years, according to a new report released this past Sunday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the ACLU. His plight is not uncommon: Juan Antonio Franco suffers from mental retardation so severe that he cannot tell his age, read a clock or dial phone numbers. An Immigration Judge closed his case almost five years ago after finding him incompetent to take part in proceedings, but Mr. Franco was never given a hearing to determine whether continuing detention was appropriate or whether bond could be granted; instead, immigration authorities were content to let him sit in detention, in limbo and forgotten, for years. Thankfully, the ACLU of Southern California took up his case and was finally able to win his release earlier this year.

As the HRW/ACLU report shows, the rights of the disabled are compromised throughout the immigration enforcement system, from apprehension all the way to deportation. Unlike in criminal prosecutions, where liberty is similarly at stake, immigration courts do not systematically identify mentally disabled immigrants, appoint lawyers to protect their best interests or provide treatment and restore competency so people can understand their cases. Immigration judges who suspend proceedings out of concern for the rights of disabled and incompetent immigrants are given no direction about how to proceed or where to send immigrants. Enforcement officers and detention center staff are ill-equipped and under-funded to manage and treat the mentally disabled immigrants who are in their care.

The results have been horrific: disabled US citizens who could not defend themselves were mistakenly deported and could not be located by their US families for months; a man so disassociated from reality he believed his family had given him the state of Texas was deported despite having a credible claim to asylum; a schizophrenic detainee was forcibly medicated in court.

The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) mandates respect for the dignity of disabled people, non-discrimination and full participation of the disabled everywhere, including immigration courts and detention centers. Friday, July 30 marks the one-year anniversary of the US’s signature of the CRPD. Now, the treaty must be ratified and incorporated into US law by the Senate. There has never been a more appropriate or critical time to take that step. Learn about the plight of mentally disabled non-citizens in immigration proceedings: you can read some of their stories here, here, and here. Call on your Senators to support ratification of the CRPD. Don’t let the many immigrants in the same position as Antoni P. and Juan Antonio Franco spend another year in detention.

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