Federal Judge Certifies Class Action Asserting Right to Counsel for Immigrant Detainees with Mental Disabilities

For Immediate Release
Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Contact: Matt Adams, Legal Director, NWIRP, (206)-957-8600


Los Angeles, CA — In the latest victory on behalf of unrepresented immigrants with mental disabilities held in immigration detention facilities, a federal judge has ruled that Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) and partners have been assigned to represent detainees in a three-state region as a class. The ruling arises out of a class action lawsuit filed last year on behalf of José Antonio Franco Gonzales, a severely schizophrenic Salvadoran immigrant detained without a hearing for over four years in federal immigration facilities, as well as six other named immigrant plaintiffs.

Some 33,400 immigrants are detained each day by immigration officials. While the exact number of detainees with severe mental disabilities is unclear, government estimates suggest that there are over 1,000 such immigrants detained nationwide on any given day. The federal immigration system has no standard procedures to resolve cases against detainees with mental disabilities, even those who are not competent to understand the proceedings against them. Today’s ruling will allow the organizations to represent detainees with mental disabilities in Washington, California and Arizona as a class, permitting hundreds of unrepresented detainees with serious mental disabilities to obtain their day in court. The District Court has already ordered that the government find legal representation for the named plaintiffs in this case.

“The most important aspect of the ruling granting class certification isthat we are now in a position to address this problem on a systemic level,” said Matt Adams, Legal Director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “People with severe mental disabilities who are locked up in immigration detention are ground through this system without even understanding what is happening to them. We can now focus on fighting for the right to counsel so that they receive a fair hearing.”

“The sad fact is that the government has no idea just how many detainees are languishing in immigration detention centers, unable to represent themselves or even to understand why they’re there,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “Today’s ruling will allow us to shed light on this most vulnerable population within our broken immigration detention system.”

Counsel inthe case includes Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, ACLU of Southern California, Sullivan & Cromwell, Public Counsel, Mental Health Advocacy Services Inc., the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, the ACLU of San Diego& Imperial Counties, and the ACLU of Arizona. The case is Franco v.Napolitano.