A Step Toward Lawyers for Mentally Ill Immigrants
Immigrants, especially those with mental disabilities, face nearly insurmountable odds in trying to prevent their deportation and gain legal status in the US. US immigration law is a complicated jumble of statutes enacted over the past 60 years that is in desperate need of wholesale reform. The Immigration Courts are severely understaffed, and the huge backlog of cases means that many immigrants spend years in limbo before a judge decides whether they can stay in the US. Immigrants who have been convicted of crimes, as well those who arrive at the border seeking asylum, are kept in immigration detention centers that are often purposely constructed in remote locations, far away from legal service providers. While the law allows immigrants to hire attorneys, the government does not provide lawyers to immigrants who cannot afford to hire a private attorney.
The end result is that the vast majority of detained immigrants are forced to represent themselves in Immigration Court. For most, this is a daunting task; for those with serious mental disabilities, who may not even understand what is happening to them, it is next to impossible.
The good news is for detained immigrants with serious mental disabilities in California, Arizona, and Washington, help may be on the way. A federal judge in California recently certified a class action lawsuit that would force the government to provide attorneys for detained immigrants with serious mental disabilities. While the government does not track how many immigrants fall into this category, it is estimated that about 1,000 of the nearly 33,400 immigrants who are detained every day have a severe mental disability. Most of them are likely to be unrepresented. With no system in place to provide attorneys for detained immigrants, those with mental illnesses, including some who are actually US citizens, are at high risk of being deported without a meaningful chance to contest their removal from the US.
The outcome of this lawsuit, Franco v. Napolitano, is far from certain. But the fact that a federal judge granted class certification means that the problem is too big to ignore any longer. While an Immigration Judge cannot sentence someone to prison or order him to pay a fine, in many cases the stakes in Immigration Court are much higher. The assistance of a competent, committed lawyer for detained immigrants is vital; for those with serious mental disabilities, a lawyer could be the difference between life and death.