US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Immigrants with mental disabilities not getting fair treatment in court

Father Tom Joyce CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The U.S. system of holding unauthorized immigrants for deportation is replete with horror stories. Two years ago it was the scandalous care of the infirmed that led to deaths. Some cases are simply about detainees whose papers are lost in the bureaucracy and so they spent months—even years—incarcerated. On release they’re in limbo with nothing to prove they’re here lawfully.

Perhaps the most tragic cases are of those judged by the court to be incompetent of understanding what they face. It’s believed there are hundreds, if not thousands, of such cases. Last year Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union initiated a class action suit on the basis of Jose Franco’s case—a retarded young man held five years after an immigration judge determined he was incompetent of defending himself. It seems a criminal would be given counsel in court, but one detained—even those who cannot defend themselves—has no right to a lawyer.

A Los Angeles Times op-ed piece told the story this week of Miguel Canto. He had been in the country for years and was picked up last year by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and brought to court. Because of an auto accident, Miguel had suffered brain damage. An immigration judge found he couldn’t understand the business before the court and had no representation. Yet he was held months in detention until a second trial. Again the case was dismissed because of his mental disability. He was released and spent a night in a shelter. The next morning he disappeared. An attorney for the county had been searching for him so that he might join a class action suit. While the suit deals with unauthorized immigration, the issue is even more fundamental—due process. We offer greater protection to the violent in our criminal courts than to mentally ill in immigration court.