Groups speak out for dis­abled im­mi­grants

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By David Crary

NEW YORK — Thou­sands of men­tally dis­abled im­mi­grants are en­tan­gled in de­por­ta­tion pro­ceed­ings each year with lit­tle or no le­gal help, leav­ing them dis­traught, de­fense­less and de­tained as their fates are de­cided.

Their plight is de­tailed in a re­port is­sued Sun­day by Hu­man Rights Watch and the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, who ex­hort fed­eral au­thor­i­ties to do bet­ter.

Short­com­ings out­lined by the two groups in­clude no right to ap­pointed coun­sel, in­flex­i­ble de­ten­tion poli­cies, in­suf­fi­cient guid­ance for judges on han­dling peo­ple with mental dis­abil­i­ties, and in­ad­e­quately co­or­di­nated ser­vices to aid de­tainees while in cus­tody.

“No one knows what to do with de­tainees with mental dis­abil­i­ties, so ev­ery part of the im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem has ab­di­cated re­spon­si­bil­ity,” said Sarah Me­hta, the re­port’s lead author. “The re­sult is peo­ple lan­guish­ing in de­ten­tion for years while their le­gal files — and their lives — are trans­ferred around or put on in­def­i­nite hold.”

The re­port doc­u­ments cases of non-cit­i­zens who could not un­der­stand ques­tions, were delu­sional, couldn’t tell the date or time, and didn’t un­der­stand the con­cept of de­por­ta­tion — for ex­am­ple, say­ing they wanted to be de­ported to New York.

The fed­eral agen­cies in­volved in the de­por­ta­tion sys­tem ap­pear well aware of many of the prob­lems cited in the re­port.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment’s Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fice of Im­mi­gra­tion Re­view ex­panded its guide­book for im­mi­gra­tion judges this year to in­clude a sec­tion on mental health is­sues, is pro­duc­ing a train­ing video cov­er­ing sim­i­lar ground, and re­cently cre­ated a new post of “as­sis­tant chief im­mi­gra­tion judge for vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions.”

U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus- toms En­force­ment, the agency which ar­rests and de­tains peo­ple fac­ing de­por­ta­tion, will host a na­tional fo­rum in Septem­ber seek­ing in­put from mental health ex­perts on ways to im­prove its prac­tices.

“We all know it’s a chal­leng­ing is­sue,” said Phyl­lis Coven, act­ing di­rec­tor of ICE’s of­fice of de­ten­tion pol­icy and plan­ning. She said her agency is tak­ing pre­lim­i­nary steps to bet­ter iden­tify men­tally dis­abled peo­ple from the out­set and en­sure they are treated ap­pro­pri­ately. Al­ter­na­tives to de­ten­tion would be sought for those who pose no pub­lic safety threat, she said.

Though the vast ma­jor­ity of cases in­volve non-cit­i­zens, Hu­man Rights Watch said some U.S. cit­i­zens with mental dis­abil­i­ties have ended up in ICE cus­tody and even have been de­ported.

In the 2009 fis­cal year, nearly 392,000 cases were pro­cessed in U.S. im­mi­gra­tion courts — and Me­hta said about 15 per­cent in­volved peo­ple with mental dis­abil­i­ties.

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