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"I was scared for my life": Trapped in Detention With a Mental Disability

Posted: 10/24/11 07:52 AM ET

By Sarah Mehta, Aryeh Neier Fellow, ACLU Human Rights Program

The Department of Homeland Security assumes that mass detention is the key to immigration enforcement. But in fact, our detention system locks up thousands of immigrants unnecessarily every year, exposing detainees to brutal and inhumane conditions of confinement at massive costs to American taxpayers. Throughout the next two weeks, check back daily for posts about the costs of immigration detention, both human and fiscal, and what needs to be done to ensure fair and humane policy.

Luis L. is a lawful permanent resident from the Dominican Republic. As a young child, he moved with his family to Florida, where I interviewed him for a report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch. Luis developed schizophrenia as a teenager, prompting trouble with the law. But fortunately, the judge presiding over Luis's criminal case recognized that Luis' behavior was connected to his disability and sent him to get mental health treatment. After a few years at an assisted living home, Luis was doing well — he was taking medication that alleviated the frightening symptoms of schizophrenia and was taking control of his life. But when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decided to detain him based on his old conviction, Luis was packed off to a facility hours away and denied the medication he had been taking, prompting a terrifying downward cycle that lasted months. He told us that the only thing more petrifying than deportation was the experience of being without his medication. "I was scared for my life," he said.

Thousands of immigrant detainees like Luis are housed in remote detention facilities around the country, far from professional medical services and the contact and care of their families. For detainees with mental disabilities, this isolation has two further sinister consequences: first, detention can be particularly traumatic for individuals with mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder. In some cases, the agonizing experience of being trapped in detention provokes psychological breakdowns. And second, detainees with disabilities are sometimes lost and forgotten — for years — in detention.

Detention is a rights-stripping environment; and for many detainees with disabilities the problems they experience in detention affect their immigration hearings. When detainees' health deteriorates in the absence of appropriate medical care, detainees are often unable to participate in their immigration proceedings. Like Luis, they may be unable to provide even basic information about themselves in court. And because there is no clear limit for how long a person can be detained during their proceedings, detainees can be trapped in detention for years when immigration judges delay or reschedule hearings, waiting or hoping for something to happen that will help the detainee to take part in the hearing.

For Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez and Jose Franco-Gonzales, a judge's decision to administratively close each of their proceedings—effectively putting the hearings "on hold"—rather than safeguarding their rights, triggered a nightmarish journey that included years of detention. Mr. Franco-Gonzales was in fact lost and forgotten by ICE during his four and a half years in detention while Mr. Gomez-Sanchez (detained for five years) was transferred far from his family in California to a hospital in South Carolina. Both were released in March 2010 after the ACLU of Southern California filed lawsuits on their behalf. In November 2010, the ACLU and a coalition of public interest organizations filed a class action lawsuit to ensure that detainees with mental disabilities are given bond hearings and the opportunity to ask for release. The lawsuit also argues for legal representation at bond hearings and throughout immigration proceedings so that detainees with mental disabilities have a fair and real opportunity to show they pose no flight risk or threat to the community and can be released from detention.

Without these safeguards, detainees with disabilities—who include U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents—are stuck in detention with no end in sight, unable to move forward in their cases. But as one immigration judge observed, fixing the insufficient and unfair procedural rules isn't going to be enough: "Trying to fix the regulations misses the point; these people should not be in removal proceedings in the first place."