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Ahilan Arulanantham Headshot

Four Years Frozen in ICE

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Like thousands of other people in 2006, Jose Franco was detained by immigration authorities. Most detainees are either deported to their country of origin or released after winning their right to remain in the United States.

But this case took a different route. Mr. Franco has a mental disability. In many respects, he functions at the cognitive level of a small child: he cannot tell time and he doesn't know his own address. When he appeared in immigration court, he was told by the immigration judge that his deportation proceedings would be suspended until he could undergo a psychological evaluation. But when immigration officials refused to conduct the evaluation, Franco was lost in a loophole in our immigration detention system.

Without the required psychiatric evaluation, and without an attorney (people imprisoned in immigration detention don't have a right to an appointed attorney), Franco remained in immigration prison in Southern California for four years. He spent half of his twenties deprived of the company of his large extended family and the specialized medical care he had received at home, while literally nothing happened in his immigration case.

Franco's story is not unique; challenging the government's conduct in his case led the ACLU to uncover an entire class of individuals who have faced or are facing a similar predicament. We know that dozens of mentally incompetent people are currently imprisoned in immigration detention centers throughout the country. The Obama administration estimates that over a thousand people with serious mental illnesses remain trapped in immigration detention at any one time.

As shocking as that may seem, it's not surprising if you consider the Obama administration's inhumane record on immigration. The Obama administration has detained and deported immigrants at a greater rate than any previous administration -- over a million since he took office. He's on track to deport more people in four years than the Bush administration did in eight.

Ironically, the Obama administration has taken this draconian approach at a time when we can least afford it. Official estimates of the cost of ICE incarceration are $120 per day. American taxpayers may have paid up to $175,000 to incarcerate Franco for four years.

People with serious mental disabilities are uniquely vulnerable to being lost behind bars. Under rules that the Obama administration has continued to defend, immigration officials force people like Mr. Franco to defend themselves without an attorney, even though they may not even have the capacity to understand why they are detained.

Last week, a ray of hope shone through the murk of the immigration detention system. Representative Pete Stark (CA-13) introduced H.R. 3881, the Ensuring Mental Competence in Immigration Proceedings Act. The bill would give immigration judges the authority to order competency evaluations for detainees like Franco who may not be competent to represent themselves. It also makes clear that when a detainee is found not to be competent and doesn't have a lawyer, the judge should either dismiss his case or appoint an attorney.

Jose Franco's story led to a rare moment of unity between Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Senator Dick Durbin of Ohio during a Senate hearing in November. Senator Durbin seemed disgusted that mentally ill people were being imprisoned for long periods of time.

"If we're going to take the responsibility of incarcerating them, we have a responsibility to treat them humanely," Durbin said.

Secretary Napolitano agreed. So do we.