Disabled Immigrants to Get Representation, Judge Rules

Immigrant detainees in three states who have mental disabilities are entitled to legal representation, a federal judge ruled, the first decision recognizing such rights in immigration cases.

U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee in Los Angeles said in a decision April 23 that appointment of a “qualified representative” allows those with serious mental disabilities who can’t represent themselves to “meaningfully access” the hearing process.

“Plaintiffs’ ability to exercise these rights is hindered by their mental incompetency, and the provision of competent representation able to navigate the proceedings is the only means by which they may invoke these rights,” Gee said.

The ruling, which applies to those in custody in California, Arizona and Washington, is the first to recognize a right to appointed counsel in immigration proceedings for a group of immigrants, the American Civil Liberties Union said on its website. More than half of all individuals in immigration court and 84 percent of those detained are unrepresented, the organization said.

“The court’s ruling will begin to correct this unjust system by providing essential protections for an extraordinarily vulnerable group -- immigrants with serious mental disabilities whom the government imprisons while their cases remain pending,” the ACLU said.

The Justice Department said on its website April 22 that it was issuing a new nationwide policy for unrepresented detainees with serious mental disabilities. The Executive Office for Immigration Review will make available a qualified representative to detainees deemed mentally incompetent to represent themselves in immigration proceedings.

The department said the new procedures will provide “enhanced protections” to detainees and “facilitate the conduct” of the proceedings.

The case is Franco-Gonzalez v. Holder, 10-02211, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles).

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