For Mentally Ill Immigrants, Help May Be on the Way
For immigrants seeking to avoid deportation and stay in the US, appearing in Immigration Court is often the most daunting part of a complicated process that can take years to complete. While immigrants have a right to have an attorney represent them on their applications for asylum, cancellation of removal, and other forms of immigration relief, the government does not provide lawyers free of charge to those who can’t afford one. Thus the majority of immigrants, and the vast majority of immigrants who are held in immigration detention facilities, represent themselves in Immigration Court without a lawyer. Their hopes of staying in the US – which in many cases means the difference between life and death – hinge on their ability to argue complex legal points against experienced immigration attorneys backed by the full resources of the US government.
For most immigrants, this is a difficult task. But for those suffering from serious mental illness, it is virtually impossible. Without someone to speak on their behalf, the mentally ill are often unable to articulate why they should be allowed to stay in the US. Mentally ill immigrants who are detained may see their conditions worsen while in detention, while those who are not detained may have a difficult time appearing for their hearings in Immigration Court, putting them at risk for deportation. In short, those who may be most likely to be persecuted upon returning to their home countries are at the greatest risk of being deported.
Last Friday, Representative Pete Stark introduced a bill in the House of Representatives aimed at rectifying this injustice. The “Ensuring Mental Competence in Immigration Proceedings Act” (H.R. 3881), would allow Immigration Judges to order competency hearings during Immigration Court proceedings and terminate proceedings against immigrants who are not competent to represent themselves. If a judge chooses not to terminate proceedings, the Act would require the judge to appoint counsel to any unrepresented immigrants who are incompetent to represent themselves. The National Association of Immigration Judges, who members must spend significant amounts of time guiding mentally ill immigrants through Immigration Court proceedings, issued a letter [pdf] in support of the Act’s goals. And PHR was proud to sign onto another letter [pdf] urging other members of Congress to co-sponsor this important legislation.
While comprehensive immigration reform seems to be a long way off, small steps like this are vital for building a fairer and more humane immigration system and reducing the enormous backlog in Immigration Courts. "Our current system,” says Representative Stark, “is failing immigrants with mental illness at a cost to the American taxpayer. Too often, mentally ill immigrants -- sometimes U.S. citizens -- get deported unfairly or they end up stuck in costly and inhumane detention. My bill will help remedy these problems." PHR urges Congress to swiftly pass this legislation and show that the US can still protect the most vulnerable among us.