Groups speak out for disabled immigrants
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.