Mentally Disabled Immigrants Lost in Detention for Years

SAN DIEGO – For five years, two men with mental disabilities have languished in immigration detention, effectively lost in a system that has no established procedures to determine whether they should be released or provided an alternative way to resolve their cases.

Today, two affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union, along with the Public Counsel Law Center in Los Angeles and the Casa Cornelia Law Center in San Diego, filed petitions in U.S. Federal District Courts in Southern California charging that the government has deprived the two men of their constitutional right to due process and violated federal discrimination laws that protect people with mental disabilities.

In both cases, an immigration judge found the men incompetent to face proceedings, and their immigration cases ground to a complete halt. But instead of releasing them to the custody of family members or providing them with release hearings, immigration officials insisted on keeping the two men locked up, often in conditions that only exacerbated their already vulnerable mental states.

“These men were completely forgotten in the immigration prison system, their cases neglected for years. In other words, they were punished for having a mental disability,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, director of immigrant rights and national security for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “Nobody tracked their cases, or even knew why they were detained. It’s a nightmare no family should face, but which many will unless there’s true detention reform that creates standards to deal with individuals with mentally disabilities.”

Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez is a 48-year-old man who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He has been held by immigration officials since December 2005. An immigration judge administratively closed his case for two-and-a-half years, after the Department of Homeland Security failed to administer a psychiatric evaluation of him. When the case was reopened in June 2008, a judge ordered Mr. Gomez Sanchez released on a $5,000 bond. But attorneys for the Department of Homeland Security challenged the bond order, even though Mr. Gomez Sanchez was found to be neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community.

“It is outrageous that our immigration prison system drops individuals with mental disabilities like Mr. Gomez-Sanchez into a legal black hole for years on end,” said San Riordan, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “It is particularly tragic that Mr. Gomez-Sanchez remains in detention, because an immigration judge has already determined that he is not a danger and should be in his family’s care.”

Jose Antonio Franco, 29, doesn’t know his own age and, in some respects, has the cognitive ability of a two-year-old. Both his parents are lawful permanent residents of the United States, and he has a pending petition for residency. He has been detained in various detention facilities around Southern California, including the Santa Ana jail, since April 2005, even though a judge closed his immigration case after finding him mentally incompetent to understand the proceedings against him. Mr. Franco has not been given a bond hearing to determine whether he presents a danger that would justify his prolonged detention or whether his detention is appropriate in light of his disability.

“It’s truly horrifying that a man with an obvious mental disability could sit in detention for five years without even a simple bond hearing. His family has lost precious time with him,” said Talia Inlender, a staff attorney with Public Counsel. “He poses no threat to anyone, but his detention is a symptom of a much deeper and troubling problem with the immigration system.”

An estimated 15 percent of all immigration detainees have a mental disability. Yet, unlike our nation’s criminal justice system, the immigration system has no standard procedures to resolve cases against detainees with mental disabilities who have been ruled incompetent to follow the proceedings against them. The petition filed today aims to end this haphazard approach that has led to such horrifying circumstances for Mr. Franco and Mr. Gomez Sanchez, and which could undoubtedly lead to other, similar cases.

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Habeas Petition