In “Mentally ill immigrants trapped in US detention without attorneys,” reporter Deia de Brito details how illegal immigrants with mental illnesses are being caught in the deportation process: not capable of representing themselves, but not legally entitled to representation. At the heart of the issue, de Brito says, is “a lack of clear guidelines on how to identify and deal with mentally ill immigrant detainees, coupled with the fact that this segment of the population is being denied legal representation.” To better understand what could be done for detainees, we reached out to Talia Inlender, a staff attorney with Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm representing several of the plaintiffs in a class-action suit on behalf of mentally ill detainees in California, Arizona and Washington.
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California Watch: In an ideal world, what sort of guidelines would you like to see for how to identify and deal with mentally ill detainees?
Talia Inlender: We want a system that works for everybody: immigrants who are locked away for months or years, families who have to live in fear and doubt, immigration agents, courts that have to administer justice and all of us who have to pay for this broken system. Fixing it would mean making sure that people with severe mental disabilities are effectively identified and treated. It would mean that immigrants receive adequate competency evaluations to determine if they can represent themselves in court. Those who cannot represent themselves would receive legal counsel and would only remain incarcerated if a judge determined their detention was truly necessary.
CW: If you have a mentally ill loved one who is currently being detained, what can you do?
Inlender: Family members of people with mental disabilities are often frustrated when they try to get help for their loved ones or don’t know where to turn. Many detention centers are in isolated locations, and even when people in detention have family members able to help, they are often hundreds of miles away. But there are some things families can do:
- Some detention centers offer legal orientation programs for detainees to inform them about their rights. Find out if there is a legal orientation program at the detention center where your family member is being held. The legal orientation program may be able to offer advice about how to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and inform them of your loved one’s condition. (You can find a list of locations for the legal orientation program here.)
- Collect documents about your (loved one’s) mental health and medical condition. These could include medical records, conservator or guardian records, and school records such as special education plans.
- If you are concerned that the medical care your (loved one) is receiving is not appropriate, try to reach local detention or ICE officials to make them aware of her or his condition. (You can find contact information for many of ICE’s detention centers here.)
CW: Can family members represent detainees?
Inlender: In case after case, judges and attorneys have seen that family members and friends are not able to adequately represent detainees with serious mental disabilities in court. Medical issues and immigration rules are extremely complex, and even the best-prepared family member is often at a loss. There is no system for accountability if a family member fails to perform adequately as attorney.
Although family members can play an important role in supporting their detained relatives, we believe the real solution is for lawyers to actually represent detainees with serious mental disabilities in immigration court.
CW: Where can people go to learn more about the issue?
Inlender: The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch report called “Deportation by Default” is a great place to start. It is based on interviews with detainees, family members, social workers, psychiatrists, immigration attorneys, judges and rights advocates, and it shows how confusing the immigration system can be for someone with a debilitating mental disability. It also talks about what we need to do to fix the system.