The Real Immigration Scandal: The Plight of Mentally Ill Immigration Detainees
If you need proof that the U.S. immigration system is broken, you need look no further than the case of Pedro Guzman, a 29-year-old U.S. citizen with developmental disabilities who was erroneously deported to Mexico in 2007 and lost for three months while his family in California desperately searched for him. Then consider that Guzman’s experience was not an isolated snafu. According to a new Human Rights Watch/ACLU report, about 15% of immigration detainees suffer from a mental illness—which adds up to 57,000 mentally ill detainees in 2008 alone. Immigration law is among the most complicated legal specialties, yet there is no right to appointed counsel in deportation proceedings (which are civil): as a result, every day immigrants are deported who may well have been eligible for some form of relief from deportation, had they had legal representation. But this situation is only exacerbated for the mentally ill, who may not be able to provide ICE officials and Immigration Judges with even the most basic information about their identity.
Yesterday, two ACLU affiliates joined with Public Counsel and the Casa Cornelia Law Center to file a federal lawsuit in the Southern District of California, challenging the U.S. government’s treatment of two mentally ill detainees who were kept in ICE lock-up indefinitely. The two plaintiffs are Jose Antonio Franco Gonzalez, the 29-year-old son of lawful permanent residents, who is mentally retarded and does not know his age, birthday, or how to make phone calls; and Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez, 48, who has paranoid schizophrenia:
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 many will unless there’s true detention reform that creates standards to deal with individuals with mental disabilities.”
As the ongoing scuffle over Arizona’s SB 1070 demonstrates, many in this country seem to believe that it’s a scandal that undocumented immigrants live in the United States. Cases like those of Pedro Guzman, Jose Antonio Franco Gonzalez, and Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez make clear that the real scandal is how the U.S. immigration enforcement apparatus abuses those in its custody, whatever their legal status.