Judge rules in favor of representation for individuals with disabilities in deportation hearings

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Jose Antonio Franco-Gonzalez’s mental disabilities prevented him from learning to speak until he was age six or seven. He doesn’t know his birthday and is unable to recognize numbers or tell time.

The son of lawful U.S. citizens, he also recently spent four and a half years in various detention facilities without legal representation in Southern California, even though a judge closed his immigration case after finding him mentally incapable of standing trial in 2005.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a lawsuit to set him free in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on March 26, 2010. Five days later, he was released, pending a bail hearing, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

On Dec. 23, the court ruled that the government is required to provide legal representation for Franco-Gonzalez, as well as another individual with disabilities facing deportation hearings, according to an ACLU of Southern California news release.  The ruling stemmed from a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of Franco-Gonzalez and five other individuals with disabilities filed August 2, charging that the U.S. Immigration System fails to provide constitutionally protected due process rights in immigration proceedings for individuals with disabilities. This issue is common in many immigration-related cases because courts are not required to provide counsel in deportation proceedings, like they are in regular trials.

As a result, people with disabilities “are simply pushed through the immigration process, without any comprehension of the proceedings, and ultimately deported, irrespective of whether they had a legal right to remain in the U.S.,” according to the complaint.

According to statistics through 2008 from the Department of Immigration Health Services, two to five percent of people, or between 7,000 and 19,000 individuals, facing immigration proceedings have “serious mental illness,” and are therefore unable to defend themselves in trial.

“The government’s inability to implement even the most basic procedural protections for detained individuals with mental disabilities in immigration proceedings has had drastic consequences on the named Plaintiffs,” according to the complaint.

The case was filed by the ACLU of Southern California, the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, Mental Health Advocacy Services Inc. and the Northwest Immigrants’ Rights Project, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that provides legal services to low-income immigrants and refugees.

The ACLU, Human Rights Watch report on people with disabilities in the U.S. immigration system can be viewed here.