U.S. must provide incapacitated immigrants with lawyers, judge rules
Two mentally disabled immigrants must be given lawyers as they fight deportation, a U.S. district court judge has ruled.
Jose Franco-Gonzalez, 29, of Costa Mesa, and Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez, 48, of San Bernardino, are at the center of a case that marks one of the first instances in which a judge ordered representation for an individual in immigration proceedings, according to a coalition of advocacy lawyers arguing the men's cases.
The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee came last week just before Christmas. Both men have been free pending a bail hearing also ordered by Gee.
In a March lawsuit, the ACLU of Southern California and other advocates argued that the men's diminished mental capacities made them unable to voice their own interests.
Franco, who is moderately retarded, was convicted and served a year in jail on an assault with a deadly weapon charge for throwing a rock during a fight between rival gangs, his attorneys have said. He doesn't know his birth date or how to tell time, and has an IQ no higher than 55, according to his attorney.
Gomez is a paranoid schizophrenic who served one year of a two-year sentence for a 2004 assault conviction stemming from a scuffle over tomatoes he picked without permission. He has previous convictions, including for battery against a police officer, which his attorneys have attributed to his mental illness.
The lawsuit initially was filed only on behalf of Gomez and Franco. But the plaintiff's lawyers successfully petitioned the court to transform it into a class-action case on behalf of all detainees with mental disabilities, attorneys said
"Judge Gee's thorough opinion is a first step in ensuring that the rights of those who are rendered helpless by their mental illnesses are not ignored,'' said Michael Steinberg, a partner with Sullivan & Cromwell who is assisting in the litigation.
Both men are still facing possible deportation. Gomez is a legal resident and Franco has petitioned for a green card. Until they were freed in April, both had languished in detention centers and psychiatric hospitals for years because authorities considered them mentally incompetent, the plaintiffs' attorneys say.
-- Catherine Saillant