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Mentally disabled immigrants remain in detention for years after serving time for crimes, their attorneys allege

March 29, 2010 |  3:38 pm

Two mentally disabled Mexican immigrants, facing deportation for criminal assault convictions for which they have already served their time, continue to be held in detention facilities in violation of their constitutional rights, according to separate lawsuits filed in federal court.

Jose Franco-Gonzalez, 29, of Costa Mesa and Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez, 48, of San Bernardino have languished in detention facilities for years because authorities deemed them mentally incompetent, their attorneys said.

Their deportation cases were closed in 2005 and 2006 and the men have since been forgotten, shuttled through a network of jails, psychiatric hospitals and detention centers, they said.

“This represents a massive failure on the part of our immigration system to create procedures to deal with individuals with disabilities,” said attorney Talia Inlender of Public Counsel, one of a coalition of legal advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which filed the habeas corpus petitions last week.

Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to comment on the cases, citing privacy concerns and the pending litigation. But ICE attorneys have argued that the law requires both men to continue to be detained because of their crimes.

Attorneys for the men said their clients have served their time and should be released. Gomez is a legal resident, and Franco’s family -- his parents are legal residents -- has a pending petition that would allow him to apply for a green card.

The men still could face deportation. But their families said the men would be unable to care for themselves in Mexico  because of their mental conditions.

Franco, who has moderate mental retardation, was convicted and served a year in jail for an assault with a deadly weapon charge for throwing a rock during a fight between rival gangs, his attorneys said. He doesn’t know his birth date or how to tell time, and has an IQ no higher than 55, Inlender said.

“He doesn’t comprehend what he’s going through,” Franco’s brother, Ruben, said. “It’s just really hard for us to try to explain that we don’t know [what’s going to happen]. Because it’s not up to us, it’s up to the government.”

Gomez, who has paranoid schizophrenia, 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 battery against a police officer, which his attorneys have attributed to his mental illness.

 -- Andrew Becker

This report is published in cooperation with the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, where Becker is a staff reporter.