Mentally ill immigrants trapped in US detention without attorneys
With his handcuffs briefly unlocked from his wrists while he faced a judge, Miguel Canto-Ortiz wore the familiar mark of a detainee: a bright orange shirt from the Santa Ana Jail. But unlike the thousands of others who have passed through this courtroom, Canto-Ortiz was a man without a lawyer.
On the back of his shaved head is a scar from a traumatic brain injury that rendered him unable to read, write or even remember his birthday.
It was Canto-Ortiz’s deportation hearing, and U.S. District Immigration Judge David C. Anderson was testing his mental condition. The judge asked the 51-year-old detainee if he could explain what type of courtroom he was in.
“Too much problem in my head – I can’t say anything,” Canto-Ortiz mumbled in Spanish.
For the legal system and immigrant-rights attorneys, his case represents a frustrating problem without an easy answer: Illegal immigrants with severe mental health problems – many without criminal records – have been trapped in detention in the United States without attorneys.
“These are people that are sitting in detention for years, not understanding what is happening to them,” said Talia Inlender, an attorney with Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm representing several of the plaintiffs in a class-action suit on behalf of mentally ill detainees in California, Arizona and Washington. “They are so mentally disabled they can’t participate in their own removal proceedings.”
The government holds, on average, more than 30,000 illegal immigrants in detention on any given day. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials do not know how many are mentally disabled, but class-action attorneys estimate as many as 1,000 immigration detainees have a “serious mental illness.”
In January 2011, Inlender and a group of pro bono law firms identified Canto-Ortiz, a native of Mexico who came to the U.S. as a child, as a potential plaintiff in the lawsuit they filed last year. It is the first class-action suit on behalf of detainees with severe mental disabilities who go through the immigration courts without access to attorneys.
The class-action lawsuit contends that by denying severely mentally ill detainees the right to court-appointed attorneys, the federal government has stripped them of due process rights and violated federal anti-discrimination laws. The Immigration and Nationality Act gives non-citizens the privilege of representation, but not at the government’s expense. Read the full story.
Photo by Ken Steinhardt:
Maria Franco embraces son Jose Franco-Gonzalez as his father, Francisco Franco, watches after Franco-Gonzalez’s release from Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention in March 2010. Franco-Gonzalez, who is mentally disabled, pleaded guilty to assault in 2005 and was detained for five years without a hearing.