Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union released a report yesterday shedding some shocking light on the immigration detention system in the United States. According to ‘Deportation by Default,’ 15% of immigration detainees have mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities that render them unable to present their cases or understand immigration proceedings in court. Many were held for indefinite periods, like Jose Antonio Franco Gonzalez and Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez, two men who were held in detention for almost five years without adequate care.
Representation is not mandated or guaranteed for people undergoing immigration proceedings:
Some were able to hire lawyers, others received pro bono representation – but there is no automatic right to court-appointed counsel, and most were not represented, the report said. (source)
I know I couldn’t represent myself in immigration proceedings and have a fighting chance at winning, personally, and I have a lot less working against me than many immigration detainees do. The fact that counsel is not appointed for people who may be navigating an unfamiliar legal system in a language they may not understand is, to be blunt, a horrific miscarriage of justice.
The ACLU concludes its summary of the situation with this rather damning commentary:
Due process is part of judicial integrity. It’s a basic principle that this country has decided to prioritize. It’s one of our greatest exports — we send people all over the world to talk about rule of law and how to reform judicial systems but we’re not doing it here in our fastest growing judicial system [the immigration courts].
Not every non-citizen with a mental disability is entitled to remain in the United States; but everyone is entitled to a fair hearing and a chance to defend his or her rights. If the US government is going to detain and deport individuals with mental disabilities, it must do so in a way that respects their human rights, honors US human rights commitments, and ensures fair and accurate court decisions.
The circumstances and situations documented in this study, incorporating interviews with 104 people, are something that the United States should be deeply ashamed of. The justice system in the United States is often touted as a paragon of equal access and fairness; we are told that everyone has access to due process, to representation in court, to the right to understand legal proceedings. Yet, for disabled immigration detainees:
Deficiencies exist throughout the arrest, detention, removal, and deportation process, violating the human rights of affected individuals and offending both American and international standards of justice. The shortcomings include no right to appointed counsel; inflexible detention policies; lack of substantive or operative guidance for attorneys and judges as to how courts should achieve fair hearings for people with mental disabilities; and inadequately coordinated care and social services to aid detainees while in custody and upon release.
The report documents cases of people who did not understand what deportation meant and lacked the ability to comprehend deportation proceedings; one subject asked to be deported to New York, for example. Some interview subjects had intellectual disabilities or untreated mental illnesses that made it functionally impossible to understand what was happening, while others were in extreme emotional distress and had difficulty comprehending the proceedings, let alone communicating. At least two cases included US citizens wrongfully subjected to deportation proceedings. One North Carolina native had bipolar disorder, was unable to understand the case against him, and could not represent himself in court, so he was deported to Mexico. Another, a US citizen since childhood, would have been deported if it weren’t for the actions of an attorney with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Centre.
The report urges Congress to require appointment of lawyers for all people with mental disabilities in immigration courts. It recommends mandatory training for immigration judges to recognize mental disabilities, and calls for repeal of a regulation allowing a mentally disabled detainee to be represented in court by the warden of the detention facility. (source)
This recommendation would certainly be a step in the right direction if it was followed. It’s clear that we have been subjecting disabled detainees to grave injustice, and it’s going to take a lot of work to remedy that. People with disabilities are also poorly served in the US court system in general, but attorneys at the ACLU point out that deportation proceedings are among the most complex legal matters people can encounter, with the fewest protections in place; if there’s any place where inability to understand court proceedings has high stakes, a deportation hearing is definitely high on the list.
“Owing to their mental disability, people may not be able to share their experience with the judge in a way that helps him understand that they have a mental condition or a valid claim,” says Deborah Fowler, Texas Appleseed’s legal director. “This is particularly true for asylum seekers who have suffered trauma or persecution in their home countries.” (source)
Another serious problem for people trapped in immigration detention is that it can be stressful, exacerbating mental health issues and causing emotional distress for people with intellectual disabilities. Being shuffled from facility to facility has documented ill health effects on nondisabled people, and those effects can be even worse for people with disabilities, especially when they are denied adequate care and treatment. Judges, uncertain about what to do with detainees who clearly do not understand the proceedings, can place cases in a form of legal limbo, leaving people adrift in the immigrant detention system for years.
If this report outrages you as much as it does me, I urge you to contact Congress to tell them that you would like to see this report followed up, and want to see Congress taking the concluding recommendations seriously. If you are in the US, your own Representative is the best bet for a contact and/or you can write your US Senators. If you are outside the United States, please consider contacting a member of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law or the Senate Subcomittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security and explaining that while you are not in the United States, you are gravely concerned by this report and feel that it reflects poorly on the position of the US in international society (and anything else you care to add). You can also drop a line to President Barack Obama, should you feel so inclined.