Courts - California ACLU suit: Mentally incompetent immigrants arbitrarily held 'Black hole' allows indefinite incarceration

By Sue Manning

Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Six mentally incompetent immigrants facing deportation have been trapped in an arbitrary limbo for months and even years because there is no way to identify them or get them legal help for detention and deportation hearings, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.

"We think those things are basic constitutional requirements," said Ahilan Arulanantham, director of immigrant rights and national security for the ACLU of Southern California.

The six indigent, mentally ill plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Jose Antonio Franco-Gonzalez, 29, who has moderate mental retardation and is unable to represent himself, who was held by the Department of Homeland Security for five years because his case was put on hold by those who questioned his mental abilities.

He and Guillermo Gomez Sanchez, 48, were released in March, three days after the ACLU filed the original complaint in this case.

In petitions for the release of the two men, attorneys said their cases exposed a "black hole" allowing authorities to hold mentally ill immigrants for years without having to explain themselves to a judge or anyone else.

"There needs to be fairness for people with serious mental disabilities. The government should provide evaluations to test their mental competence and appoint lawyers who can represent them. If cases are going to be delayed for very long periods, they should hold release hearings to address that," Arulanantham said.

No one knows exactly how many mentally ill immigrants are caught in the bureaucracy, he said. But if an estimated 380,000 people go through the system each year and 2 percent to 5 percent are mentally ill, there could be as many as 19,000, he said.

The problem: no one is counting, Arulanantham added.

The suit names the Attorney General, the Executive Office of Immigration Review, Homeland Security, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for ICE in Southern California, said she couldn't comment on pending litigation.

"This administration has made crystal clear its commitment to implementing comprehensive reforms to ICE's detention system. That process is ongoing and we're working closely with non-governmental organizations and immigrant rights advocates on that effort," she said.

The other agencies did not return calls.

Besides those who are held indefinitely, there are those who were detained, deported and forgotten, attorneys claim.

"There is no way to identify those who suffer. If a minor enters the system, there are all kinds of efforts made. But if you are suffering from delusions and you think God is talking to you in your right ear, there is no one to help you," said attorney Michael Steinberg, in the lawsuit.

Published: Wed, Aug 4, 2010