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Mentally ill immigrant detainees should receive legal representation, suit says

August 3, 2010 |  2:56 pm

Immigrant detainees with severe mental disabilities have a constitutional right to legal representation in immigration court, according to a lawsuit filed late Monday by a coalition of legal organizations.  

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Los Angeles on behalf of six immigrants from California and Washington who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, depression and mental retardation and are being held in immigration detention centers around the country or are fighting their cases in immigration court.

“If someone cannot understand the proceedings against them, due process requires that they be given a lawyer to help them,” Ahilan Arulanantham, director of immigrants’ rights for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said in a statement.  

Immigrants are entitled to a fair hearing on whether there is a basis for their deportation but they are not provided with counsel, leaving many to represent themselves. Those with mental health issues often struggle to understand the complicated proceedings, or end up being deported even if they had a legal right to stay in the United States, according to the lawsuit.

The suit asks the court to create a way to determine which immigrant detainees are incompetent to represent themselves and to appoint attorneys to those who are not.

A study recently released by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch concluded that people with mental disabilities, including U.S. citizens, are at higher risk of lengthy detention and erroneous deportation because they are unable to represent themselves. Researchers documented the cases of 58 people, including some who were delusional or did not know their own names. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is attempting to overhaul its detention system, recently instructed its staff to avoid detaining people “known to be suffering from serious physical or mental illness” unless there are extraordinary circumstances or they are legally required to be detained.   

--Anna Gorman