Federal judge hears class action suit on behalf of mentally disabled immigrants

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A federal judge has agreed to hear a case in which a mentally-disabled immigrant was declared unfit to stand trial, but kept in detention for four years.

A federal judge in Los Angeles agreed to hear a class-action lawsuit on behalf of mentally-disabled immigrants in detention who lack legal representation.

The class action lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. It centers around the case of Jose Antonio Franco-Gonzalez, an illegal immigrant who, in 2004, threw a rock and injured someone in a gang fight. He was sentenced to a year in jail for assault with a deadly weapon.

While in federal detention, it became clear that Franco-Gonzalez suffered from mental retardation. A judge ruled he was unfit to stand trial and ordered his case closed, but the process kept him in detention for four years.

Ahilan Arulanantham represents the plaintiffs in the case; he’s the deputy legal director of the ACLU of Southern California.

“Now, there’s nothing wrong with that if you release people, and if you have a procedure to release people and provide them with lawyers that can argue for their release. Then that’s a perfectly sensible approach," says Arulanantham. "But when you don’t give lawyers, and people don’t understand the system and the government doesn’t allow them to be released, then administrative closure is just a recipe for disaster.”

Detained immigrants have to find their own legal representation because they are ineligible to have a public defender.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not comment on pending litigation.

A department spokesperson said while in detention, immigrants with mental disabilities are given the care they need, and the agency will soon be implementing a program to provide increased screening of detainees with mental health issues.

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