IMPACT
10/05/2011 08:44 am ET | Updated Dec 05, 2011

Disabilities: A Deterrent To Deportation?

Though Luis Cervantes is an illegal immigrant, he may not have to worry about getting deported. The 30-year-old Omaha resident is autistic and moderately mentally retarded, which may have contributed to the decision to let him stay in the U.S., Omaha.com reports.

Back in August, the Obama administration said that it would stop deportation proceedings for students, military family members and primary caretakers, according to The Washington Times. The move demonstrated the government's intent to focus its attention on illegal immigrants who pose a threat to the public.

"This case-by-case approach will enhance public safety," the article quoted Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano having said. "Immigration judges will be able to more swiftly adjudicate high-priority cases, such as those involving convicted felons."

Although the Omaha Immigration Court judge didn't elaborate on his decision, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn't offer a comment, Cervantes' attorney, Kristin Fearnow, said she's confident that her client was helped by the government's recent directive.

Cervantes, who was arrested for stealing a shopping cart and didn't have identification to offer police, is one of up to 300,000 people eligible to have his deportation case suspended, according to The Washington Times. The number of people with mental problems in ICE detention centers, according to the ACLU, falls somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000 people, The Latin American Herald Tribune reported.

But while Cervantes' case was wrapped up in a matter of weeks -- some immigrants with mental illness aren't as fortunate. Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez, a 50 year-old man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who speaks little English, for example, has languished in detention for five years, the Huffington Post reported.

Gomez-Sanchez was sentenced to two years in prison in 2004 for his involvement in an altercation. His legal status was challenged, but his deportation case landed in administration limbo when a judge ordered a psychiatric evaluation. It wasn't reopened until 2008. Two years later, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in a U.S. Federal District Court in Southern California charging that it had violated federal anti-discrimination laws.

The lack of a clear approach to resolving immigration cases for people with disabilities has left advocacy groups feeling frustrated and angry.

"It is outrageous that our immigration prison system drops individuals with mental disabilities like Mr. Gomez-Sanchez into a legal black hole for years on end," San Riordan, a staff attorney at the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties stated on the organization's website.

The next hearing in Gomez-Sanchez's federal court case is scheduled for Oct. 12.

While organizations, like the ACLU, continue to push for more compassion in the treatment of illegal immigrants with disabilities, politicians who staunchly support deportation demand a more stringent strategy.

Instead of reprioritizing the immigration cases, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the House immigration subcommittee, said that Congress should have "asked for more judges, more prison beds and more prosecutors," so that it could try and deport more immigrants, ProPublica reported.

But, for those who disagree with the King camp, and hope to bring sweeping change to the policies for immigrants with disabilities, even the Cervantes win leaves them feeling uneasy when it comes to the final outcome for such cases.

Because while Cervantes' deportation has been halted, his fate remains uncertain. He does not possess legal status and he could potentially get dragged back into drawn out court proceedings, his lawyer told Omaha.com.

All Fearnow could confirm is that "for now, he is not going to be deported."

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