Northwest Immigrant Rights Project & Partners File First Class-Action Lawsuit On Behalf of Immigrants with Mental Disabilities

For Immediate Release
Monday, August 2, 2010

Contact: Jorge L. Baron, Executive Director, NWIRP, 206-957-8609 or
Eileen White Read, ACLU/SC, 213-977-5252

SEATTLE, WA- The nation’s first class action lawsuit on behalf of immigrant detainees with severe mental disabilities – detainees who are left defenseless in a system they cannot comprehend  — was filed late Monday by a coalition of legal organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Public Counsel, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants Rights Project, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial County, and Mental Health Advocacy Services.

The suit asks a federal district court in Los Angeles to order the U.S. government to create a system for determining which non-citizens lack the mental competence to represent themselves and to appoint legal representation for those who are unable to defend themselves. Unlike the criminal court system – where appointed counsel is part of due process — immigration courts and detention facilities have no safeguards for ensuring that the rights of people with serious mental disabilities are protected. Two plaintiffs in the suit were the subject of habeas petitions before federal courts in California last March.

“We have an egregiously flawed process that currently allows for people with severe mental disabilities to be forced to stand alone in court without any legal representation,” said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.  “We hope to be able to change this glaring breakdown in our justice system.”

“Our Constitution and our laws demand fair treatment for people with severe mental disabilities,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, director of immigrants’ rights and national security for the ACLU/SC. “If someone cannot understand the proceedings against them, due process requires that they be given a lawyer to help them.”

The six immigrants represented are from California and Washington, and all have been diagnosed with severe mental disabilities, such as schizophrenia and mental retardation.  Several have been found incompetent to stand trial in other court proceedings.

One of them, Jose Antonio Franco-Gonzalez, was lost in detention facilities in California for nearly five years because of the government’s failure to account for his mental retardation. Another detainee named in the lawsuit, Ever Francisco Martinez-Rivas, is a 31-year-old lawful permanent resident who came to the U.S. at the age of nine. He has been diagnosed with schizophrenia so severe that he gets confused when given simple directions, and has been deemed “a gravely disabled person.” Despite this, the government intends to deport Mr. Martinez without giving him a lawyer and without having his mental state evaluated.

“This broken system unjustly ruins the lives of detainees and their families. Our country’s values demand that we provide fair treatment for detained immigrants with serious mental disabilities,” said Talia Inlender, staff attorney with Los Angeles-based Public Counsel.

The exact number of detainees with severe mental disabilities is unclear, but some reports estimate that at least two to five percent of the immigrants detained by immigration authorities nationwide – or 7,000 to 19,000 individuals – might have a serious mental disability.

“The problem worsens day by day as the detention centers swell with more detainees,” said Michael Steinberg, a partner of Sullivan & Cromwell. “Ignoring the needs of those suffering from mental illnesses only debases our system of justice.”

The widespread failure of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to implement such a system and provide court-appointed attorneys to those with serious disabilities was recently documented in a report jointly published by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch (see the report here).

The complaint can be found here.