Obama Administration Policy on Mentally Ill Is Questionable

05/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

While President Obama basks in his noteworthy success in passing health care legislation, he might take some time to review his administration's policy regarding mentally ill immigrants to this country.

According to an article in the New York Times, the Immigration & Customs Enforcement agency has sent many of these immigrants to detention facilities in Texas, instead of mental institutions in their states of residence. The Times, in assessing a yearlong study of the handling of these individuals, cited the case of a legal permanent resident who had lived in New York since 1974. A schizophrenic, he was charged with trespassing and mandated to serve 90 days in a mental hospital. Yet he ended up being dispatched to a detention facility in Texas, where "he received no medication for weeks" and did not have the benefit of counsel during his deportation hearing. In March, he was deported to the Dominican Republic.

Needless to say, a mentally ill person who has been deprived of his medication for weeks and has been exiled to the streets of a foreign country is unlikely to survive.

Such a grievous outcome occurred because of the misguided priorities of the Obama policy, which, as the Times revealed, is based on obtaining quotas of detentions and deportations of these immigrants, irrespective of their mental illness or disability.

A government memo, first published online by the Washington Post, touted the ICE for reaching its goal of "150,000 criminal alien removals" and indicated that agents should detain and deport non-citizens, even if their only crime appears to be unauthorized residence.

Whether or not the Obama administration attempts a large-scale immigration package later this year, it could at least modify its policy in cases where an immigrant suffers from mental illness or disability. I am not saying that we should not deport illegal immigrants who have committed infractions or crimes, but we should provide them with medication, if they need it, and counsel. And who would have thought that the Obama administration, whose chief executive famously said that "words matter," would emulate Lou Dobbs, the xenophobic bloviator, late of CNN, in characterizing these individuals as "aliens"?

In an unrelated story, the New York Times ran a front-page feature on a homeless man who goes by the nickname of Heavy. He has lived in Times Square for more than a decade and has "politely declined offers" to house him. Heavy, who as the Times noted, may suffer from mental illness, likes living on the street.

I wrote an op-ed in 2008 for the L.A. Times, in which I discussed how the severely mentally ill do not always know how ill they are and should be encouraged to go to hospitals. I referenced my own psychosis in 1999 when I went on a harrowing trek across L.A. County, convinced that I was going to be assassinated and blamed for a series of crimes, and may have been perceived as a homeless person when I entered a hospital.

Unlike me during that psychotic break, Heavy seems to be mentally stable and capable of taking care of himself. According to the N.Y. Times, Heavy "does not harass passers-by or panhandle aggressively." A beatific presence on 48th Street and Seventh Avenue, he greets neighbors with cheer, receives gifts and looks out for the well-being of the neighborhood, serving as its "protector," as the Times wrote.

I was heartened by the Times' coverage of mental illness or perceived mental illness in these two stories. As I have written before, too often when we read stories of the mentally ill, we read of tragedies.

By contrast, Heavy would appear to be an inspiration, a happy man who accepts, perhaps even embraces his life on the streets. That may not sound sane to some, but if that is what Heavy wishes, then we should have nothing but admiration for him.