Published   December 20, 2011

Court Grants Class-Action Status to Mentally Ill Immigrant Detainees

Ruling Will Help Ensure Due Process for Detainees Unable to Represent Themselves

December 20, 2011

LOS ANGELES – A federal court in California has granted class-action status to a group of unrepresented immigration detainees with mental disabilities, an important step in helping ensure they get access to legal counsel.

The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of a group of detainees, including José Antonio Franco Gonzales, a Mexican immigrant with moderate mental retardation who was detained in federal immigration facilities for over four years without a hearing. Judge Dolly Gee of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California found that the problems identified in the lawsuit are systemic, and there is no mechanism for evaluating whether immigration detainees with mental disabilities are able to represent themselves.

“The sad fact is that the government refuses to systematically track the many detainees with mental disabilities who are lost in immigration detention centers, unable to represent themselves or even to understand why they’re there,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, deputy legal director with the ACLU of Southern California. “Today’s ruling will allow us to shed light on this most vulnerable population within our broken immigration detention system.”

About 33,000 immigrants are detained daily and government estimates indicate that over 1,000 of them have mental disabilities.  The government has no procedure to resolve their cases, including for individuals who are unable to understand the proceedings against them due to severe mental disabilities. The ruling, which was unsealed by the judge today, applies to cases in Arizona, California and Washington.

“The government’s refusal to create any system to deal fairly with mentally disabled detainees leads to tragic results.  Individuals get lost in immigration detention centers for  years, are unable to represent themselves or even to understand why they’re there, and are deported without a fair hearing,” said Sean Riordan, staff attorney for the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties.  “Today’s ruling shines the light on perhaps the most vulnerable population within our broken immigration detention system.”

Public Counsel Law Center staff attorney Talia Inlender, who is representing Franco in his immigration proceedings, said: “Imagine being held in jail, sometimes for years, without even a basic understanding of why you are there. That’s the reality for too many immigrants with severe mental disabilities. Today, we move a step closer to providing these immigrants and their families with the due process that our law requires and that our conscience demands.”

Michael H. Steinberg, of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, who argued the motion before Judge Gee, said: “It is profoundly disturbing that the government continues to pretend that this helpless population needs no assistance. With a class now certified, it will be much more difficult for the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to avoid what is clearly a problem that must be addressed.”

The ACLU of Arizona, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and Mental Health Advocacy Services have also been involved in the case and represent the class.

Click here for more information about the case.