Judge grants class-action status to lawsuit for mentally-ill immigrants

Ahilan Arulanantham is a lawyer with the ACLU in Los Angeles.
Ahilan Arulanantham is a lawyer with the ACLU in Los Angeles.
KPCC / Sanden Totten

A federal judge in Los Angeles has granted class action status in a lawsuit involving mentally-ill immigrants who face deportation.

The lawsuit argues that immigrants with mental disabilities who face deportation are — just like criminal defendants — entitled to free legal representation. American Civil Liberties Union Attorney Ahilan Arulanantham acknowledges that immigration hearings are civil – not criminal – proceedings, and that defendants receive fewer legal protections.

“But the question is how much less, and whether that means that people who have no mental ability to understand the proceedings and defend themselves should be left defenseless," Arulanantham said.

Arulanantham says this is "patently unfair."

But Obama administration lawyers argue that legal representation isn’t necessary for a fair hearing, and that Congress doesn’t mandate it for immigrant detainees. A spokeswoman for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency declined to comment. Of 33,000 immigrants in detention on any given day, the agency estimates that more than a thousand have mental disabilities, Arulanantham said.

“We do think that people, including some people who really have the right to stay here, get deported very quickly because the government sort of runs roughshod over them," Arulanantham said. "But in some cases, people are so ill that the judge is not willing to even proceed in the case.”

That’s what happened to lead plaintiff Jose Franco of Los Angeles, who couldn’t even tell time. The 32-year-old Mexican immigrant languished in detention for four years. Federal District Judge Dolly Gee has already ordered the government to provide lawyers to three immigrants with mental disabilities. ACLU attorneys hope she will eventually extend that order to hundreds of others who face deportation.