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These Lives Matter: “Detainee Not Found”

Port Isabel Detention Center

Guestblogger:Claudia Valenzuela, Associate Director of Litigation for Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center

This post is the second in a new series titled “These Lives Matter,” in which NIJC staff, clients, and volunteers will share their unique perspectives on immigration stories that do not always make the news.

I began my legal career working with Guatemalan asylum seekers looking to become lawful permanent residents of the United States. In working with this community, I heard stories time and again about loved ones who had been disappeared and saw firsthand how having a husband, son, or daughter disappeared can create a special kind of guilt, fear and grief. Working with detained immigrants many years later, I cannot help but notice parallels between individuals who were purposely disappeared in 1980s Guatemala and individuals who disappear when taken into ICE custody – mainly in the ways that family members left behind are affected by not knowing the immediate fate of their loved ones.

When an individual is detained by ICE, he or she can in fact be disappeared. It can take family members days, or in some cases weeks or even months, to locate loved ones arrested by ICE. Sometimes, a family does not learn of a loved one’s whereabouts until that person calls home after they are deported.

Locating a loved one relatively quickly does not necessarily lessen the trauma of witnessing the arrest in the first place. Take the case of Viviana and Martin*—mother and son. ICE officers came to their home and misled Viviana into believing that they were local police officers who only wanted to talk to Martin. They convinced Viviana to call her son home. She was devastated after witnessing the officers take her son into custody without further explanation. Martin—who had just turned 18,had diagnosed learning disabilities, had no previous encounters with the immigration authorities, and had engaged in no wrongdoing—was taken away, surrounded by armed men, while Viviana watched helplessly. The hours following Martin’s arrest were harrowing. Viviana spent that night calling every police station in town, only to be told there was no one by her son’s name in custody. Throughout the ordeal, Viviana was overcome with grief at the thought that she had turned in her own son.

There are countless stories like Viviana and Martin’s—sometimes it’s mothers, sometimes fathers, sons or daughters, taken away while loved ones, including children, stand by helplessly. In the aftermath, there usually are frantic calls to numbers that lead nowhere. It takes luck to reach an ICE officer who will answer any questions. The ICE Online Detainee Locator System—a public relations initiative ICE instituted following a series of wide-scale raids that resulted in mass “disappearances” —is hit or miss, more often a miss. If loved ones can get online—and most of the family members we encounter every day do not have access to the internet—they must either have the person’s “alien number” or the exact spelling of their name, date of birth and country of nationality. Then they must pass a “captcha” security check by typing in a word that appears in a box. Even lawyers have a difficult time getting the system to work. Despite having the necessary, accurate information, we still frequently get the message “detainee not found” if it is less than 24 hours since the arrest. It also takes the system a while to be updated following a transfer to a new detention center. This delay makes the first 24 hours or so following a person’s arrest all the more distressing for loved ones who realize a family member has gone missing.

Martin eventually reached his mother, after a collect call finally made it through to Viviana. He was later released from ICE custody after posting a bond. But months later, Viviana lives with the fear and guilt of those critical hours after Martin was taken away, when she believed her son to be missing and felt that she was responsible.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Picture Courtesy of http://www.texasobserver.org

What happens when we give up the ideals that define us?

Incidents around the country continue to undermine the principles of equality, justice and dignity for all that have played an important role in making America the strong nation it is today. In a story reported by the New York Times, a Brazilian man, Genesio Oliveira, is facing deportation and separation from his husband, Tim Coco, an American citizen and resident of Massachusetts, soon after federal officials allowed him to be reunited with his husband earlier this year.

The current situation is reminiscent of the ordeal the couple went through 3 years ago when they were forced to live apart after Genesio was denied asylum on claims of being raped as a teenager in Brazil. The judge deciding the case said he found Genesio’s fear of returning to Brazil “genuine” but denied him asylum on the grounds that he was never physically harmed by the rape. This ruling received a lot of attention from civil rights and immigrant rights groups around the world who criticized U.S. officials for separating a couple that was legally married. Following a request from Senator Kerry in June this year Genesio Oliveira was allowed back into the country on humanitarian grounds. He fervently hoped that this would induce the Attorney General to reverse the initial ruling that forced him back to Brazil, but even on Sen. Kerry’s urging, Eric Holder is refusing to reverse the earlier decision in a way that would allow Genesio to apply for permanent residency and stay with his husband.

Laws that interfere with civil rights and liberties are making their presence felt on a national level, as is evident in the constantly evolving TSA (Transportation Security Administration) regulations regarding security screenings in airports around the country. Three of the largest Sikh advocacy groups in the country are opposing screening measures at airports that require hand searches of all people wearing turbans, even if they agree to undergo full body scans using Advanced Imaging Technology. Representatives from the Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund announced their opposition to screening policies that they say unfairly target members of the Sikh community.

Hansdeep Singh, a senior staff lawyer for United Sikhs based in New York, told the New York Times about a meeting that took place with TSA officials some weeks ago, in which members of Sikh groups had hoped to hear that with the introduction of Advanced Imaging Technology, there would be less hand and wand searches of turbans in airports. Instead, what they were met with was news of the development of “a patchwork of airport security policies… in which all turbans are searched.” Amardeep Singh, the Sikh Coalition’s director of programs, told the Associated Press, “The TSA told us, point blank, that turbans will now be screened 100 percent of the time.” Referring to the racial profiling and hate crimes that Sikh Americans have been faced with post September 11, 2001, Singh said, “Sikh Americans are already looked at differently in this country. Once you start pulling Sikhs aside for extra screening, it sends a message that the government is suspicious of them for the same reasons [other passengers] are suspicious of them.”

While TSA officials have not confirmed the introduction of a blanket policy, they reiterated Security procedures introduced in 2007 that included provisions for all “bulky” headwear to be searched. National Sikh organizations are urging their constituents to lobby Congress to overturn a blanket TSA policy that calls on all Sikhs wearing turbans to undergo a hand search of their turbans in spite of the Advanced Imaging Technology screening that screens metallic, plastic and ceramic through items of clothing.

In the midst of these incidents and policies that strike at the heart of this nation’s diversity, we did get wind of a heartening story that evidences a positive stance towards minority communities. Today, New Haven officials announced their plans for New Haven Promise, a new program that grants college tuition to high school students from public and charter school, provided that they maintain a 3.0 grade point average and 90% attendance rate.  The program, financed by Yale University, will pay up to 25% of the tuition for qualifying seniors who go on to public colleges or universities in Connecticut next year, up to 50% for the class after that, up to 75%for the following class; and up to 100% for the Class of 2014. According to Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., the program is like a “contract that says to kids: If you work hard, you demonstrate academic achievement and display appropriate behaviors, we’ll give you the tools to go to college and therefore inject choice and opportunity in your lives.”

Most importantly, the Promise will be open to all New Haven residents irrespective of their immigration status, and that includes those young adults who are undocumented and would be eligible for the DREAM Act, were it to be passed. Right now, students have to be legal residents or citizens in order to be eligible for in-state tuition rates and undocumented students are charged out-of-state tuition, which is about $10,000 at the state universities and $24,500 at University of Connecticut.

This is just one more step in the right direction for New Haven officials who are supportive of the immigrant communities that are an integral part of the city. From the New Haven Independent-

State legislators, including New Haven Sen. Martin Looney, have been pushing for a statewide version of the DREAM Act that would allow Connecticut residents who are undocumented immigrants to get in-state tuition. DeStefano said he will urge the state legislature to pass such a bill; he also said he’s working with various in-state colleges to work out an arrangement concerning the issue. Until such a change is made, he said, Promise will pay “full tuition” for each eligible student, even if that student is an immigrant who must pay out-of-state tuition.

It is important that we work together to honor the diversity that is the strength of this nation. As long as we continue to deny equality, justice, dignity and liberty to some, we cannot guarantee human rights for anyone.

Photo courtesy of blogs.cnn.com

Mentally ill immigration detainees undergo “Deportation by Default”

A woman sat before immigration officials at an immigration detention center, unable to understand a single question asked of her. She stared into space during the interview, shook her head repeatedly, and rocked nervously in her chair. The interview was eventually terminated because it was not clear if she had granted consent for deportation.

This is not an unusual incidents but reflects the findings of a Human Rights Watch and American Civil Liberties Union report Deportation by Default documenting “case after case in which people with mental disabilities are prevented from making claims against deportation – including claims of U.S. citizenship – because they are unable to represent themselves.”

Shortcomings outlined in the report include no right to counsel even though many are unable to understand what is happening to them, a lack of guidance for judges handling people with mental disabilities, and a severe lack of services to aid detainees while in custody. As Sarah Mehta, the report’s lead author says,

No one knows what to do with detainees with mental disabilities, so every part of the immigration system has abdicated responsibility. The result is people languishing in detention for years while their legal files – and their lives – are transferred around or put on indefinite hold.

Many of the detainees interviewed for the report could not understand questions, were delusional, couldn’t tell the date or time, and didn’t understand the concept of deportation – for example, saying they wanted to be deported to New York. This is particularly important for the courtroom because impairments can be so severe that those who have them do not understand what is happening to them or what is at stake in the hearings they must attend.

The federal agencies involved in the deportation system are well aware of many of the problems cited in the report and the reports authors are cautiously encouraged by some recent steps to better handle people with mental disabilities. For example, The Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review recently expanded its guidebook for immigration judges to include a section on mental health issues. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for detaining people is also taking preliminary steps to better identify mentally disabled people from the outset and ensure they are treated appropriately.

But there are many problems that still need to be addressed. There is no tracking of date on how many mentally disabled people face deportation and it is only after much digging that the report uncovered that in 2009, of the nearly 392,000 cases in immigration courts, 15 percent involved people with mental disabilities. Tracking data is an essential first step. Secondly, the report calls for appointment of lawyers for all people with mental disabilities in immigration courts and recommends mandatory training for immigration judges to recognize mental disabilities.

In the meanwhile, cases like Michael’s continue. Michael claimed to be a U.S. citizen whose extended family was killed in Nigeria. Asked by an asylum officer why he feared deportation to Nigeria, Michael said he would be tortured,

I don’t know why they want to torture me. I’m a rich man. I’m god. They want to have me remove the plants from heaven to earth. Jay-Z and R-Kelly are some of them.

At another point in the credible fear interview, Michael claimed to hear his dead wife and President Obama speaking to him. The asylum officer wrote to reviewing authorities,

Applicant’s testimony was not credible because it was implausible. His testimony was implausible because it was delusional. It should be noted that applicant appears to suffer from psychosis. Therefore, this calls into question the entire credibility of his claim.

The officer also observed that Michael was at risk of persecution and maltreatment on account of his mental disabilities if returned to Nigeria. Despite the concerns raised by the asylum officer, an immigration court ordered Michael A. deported to Nigeria in April 2010.

Watch two moms fight to stay together

In countries around the world, the month of June is celebrated as LGBT Pride month, and is a time for people to come together in affirmation of the LGBT community and the movement for gay rights. June was chosen as Pride month to commemorate the Stonewall riots of 1969 which led to birth of the gay rights movement. Pride month provides us with an opportunity to recognize the successes of the movement for equal rights and to celebrate the diversity of the community, but is also a time to look at the numerous battles that are still to be won before we can all live freely and equally, irrespective of our gender and sexual orientation.

This LGBT Pride month we want to celebrate families- families like the one that Shirley and Jay, moms of twin boys, are fighting to keep together. A picture perfect family, Shirley Tan and Jay Mercado live in Pacifica, California with their thirteen year old twin boys, Jashley and Joriene, and Jay’s mother, Renee. Shirley and Jay fell in love 23 years ago when Shirley was visiting from the Philippines, and have been together ever since. Always wanting to have children, Shirley gave birth to the twins in 1997, and the couple entered into a domestic partnership under California law. Within their suburban community they are considered a “model family” in which Shirley is a typical stay-at-home soccer mom who volunteers at the boys’ school and looks after her mother-in-law while Jay works at an insurance firm. On Sundays, Jay and Shirley sing as a part of their church choir.

As per family unification provisions in immigration law, American citizens are able to petition for residency for their spouses. Unlike countries like France, Germany and Canada, this does not apply to same-sex partners in the United States, so although Jay Mercado is an American citizen, she is unable to sponsor Shirley. Having come to the United States to escape a traumatic and violent familial situation in the Philippines, Shirley had applied for political asylum in 1995. Her lawyer had advised the couple that they should be patient while the application was being processed. News of the denial of Shirley’s application came in the form of a rude shock that disrupted the whole family.

At 6:30 am on a winter morning last year, Jay was getting dressed to go to work and Shirley was getting ready to take the boys to school, when the doorbell rang. On opening it they were faced with two agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who showed them a 2002 letter ordering Shirley’s deportation (which she had never seen before). Minutes later she was handcuffed and taken away as Jay and her mother watched, frightened and helpless. Shirley was held in detention at the Sansome facility in San Francisco before being tagged with an electronic bracelet and returned to her family, awaiting deportation to the Philippines. Shirley describes her time in detention as one of the most traumatic ordeals of her life-

My agonizing, humiliating and tragic experience started when I got in their SUV. My partner ran to the car and saw me being handcuffed and she broke down to tears… I thought it was the lowest point of my life…I was taken like a criminal… My heart was beating so hard, my whole body was shaking and I felt so nauseated with what was happening to me.

Reporting to ICE three times a week and struggling to deal with the possibility of being separated from her wife and children, Shirley sought the support of LGBT advocates and the media to raise awareness about the case and seek justice that would prevent her family from being torn apart. As a result of this, in April 2009, California Sen. Diane Feinstien introduced a rare bill that granted Shirley a temporary reprieve from deportation, allowing her to stay in the U.S. till January 2011.

While the Tan-Mercado family are extremely grateful for the respite that Sen. Feinstein’s bill has provided them, they are worried about what will happen to them post-Janunary 2011. In a testimony that Shirley delivered to the United States Senate Committee, Shirley expressed her concerns for the future of her family-

All the while my family was first and foremost the center of everything on my mind.  How would Jay work and take care of the kids if I was not there?  Who would continue to take care of Jay’s ailing mother, the mother I had come to love, if I was not there?  Who would be there for my family if I was not there?  In an instant, my family, my American family, was being ripped away from me.  And when I did return home, I had an ankle monitoring bracelet. I went to great lengths to hide it from my children. I have a partner who is a U.S. citizen, and two beautiful children who are also U.S. citizens, but not one of them can petition for me to remain in the United States with them. Because my partner is not a man, she cannot do anything to help me. Nor can my children, who keep asking why this happened to us and what will ultimately happen to our family.

The only way for Shirley to stay in the United States with her family is if gay and lesbian couples to be able to sponsor their partners. It is important that we recognize families like the Tan-Mercado’s so that families can stay together, in Pride month and beyond.

The good news is that the provision that allows for same-sex partner sponsorship has now been folded into the proposal for comprehensive immigration reform which was first introduced by Rep Gutierrez in December 2009.

Take action now to fix our immigration system and keep families together.

Here’s a chance for us to renew our commitment to protect human rights

This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the monumental Refugee Protection Act of 1980 marking a historic moment which created a legal status for asylum and a formal process for the resettling of refugees from around the world, affirming that the protection of all victims of persecution is an integral part of U.S. policy. Senator Edward Kennedy, who worked tirelessly for over a decade to secure the passage of this Act ensured an impartial and consistent system of asylum and resettlement for anyone

who is unable or unwilling to return to his country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

In the thirty years since the passage of the Refugee Protection Act, the U.S. has granted asylum to over half a million people and has been responsible for the resettlement of nearly two and a half million refugees. But these successes have been undermined by national security measures post 9/11 which have practically shut the resettlement system down, leading to President Obama having to sign a Presidential Determination authorizing the admission of 80,000 refugees in 2010 because of failures in the system.

In November 2009, a Human Rights First report reported that since 2001, over 18,000 refugees have faced delays or been denied asylum because of the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and the Real ID Act of 2005 that labeled them “terrorists”. Following 9/11, these acts expanded the scope of laws defining material support to terrorist activity so that thousands of men, women and children who had faced rebel armies and fought for democracy in their countries were denied asylum even while they had fought for causes supported by the U.S.

But this isn’t the only way the system has faltered. Increasing numbers of asylum seekers are locked into detention for months, sometimes years, while pursuing their asylum case. Like Jean Pierre Kamwa, who fought for democracy in Cameroon and facing severe mental and physical abuse came to seek protection in the United States, only to be locked up for four months in a windowless detention center in New Jersey, until he was granted asylum. But Jean Pierre was lucky because he got pro-bono help from a lawyer. Many are deported because they do not have enough access to information in substandard detention centers and are unable to explain their cases to an immigration judge adequately.

That’s what makes Senator Patrick Leahy’s introduction of the Refugee Protection Act 2010 so momentous. If passed, the legislation would strengthen legal protections for those seeking asylum in the United States and ensure that more people who deserve protection can benefit from it. Co-sponsored by Senators Carl Levin, Richard Durbin and Daniel Akaka, the bill addresses flaws in the current system including ensuring a nation-wide alternatives to detention program, access to counsel, medical care and family visits while in detention. The bill also eliminates the requirement that asylum applicants file a claim within one-year of arrival in the U.S. giving more leeway to those needing protection, protects particularly vulnerable asylum seekers like the LGBT community by ensuring they can pursue a claim even where their persecution is not socially visible, and modifies the material support and terrorism bars in the law.

While the bill rallies up support to pass the Senate, the National Immigrant Justice Center and 30 nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and academics are filing petitions with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice requesting similar regulations allowing the release of detained asylum seekers who pose no danger to the community so that these can be implemented on an administrative level as well while the bill is being debated.

The act would go a long way to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the U.N. Refugee convention and provide a safe haven for the persecuted so call on your senators to support it.

Photo courtesy of humanrightsfirst.org

How has the immigration system fared one year under Obama’s presidency?

In early 2009, President Obama appointed the governor of border-state Arizona Janet Napolitano, and a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, as the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). For many, it was a sign that the administration would tackle immigration reform as a priority. In her first week in office, Napolitano ordered a sweeping internal review of DHS, aimed at identifying key areas for reform. March 2010 marks the one year anniversary from that week. So how much has changed for immigration?

For this we turn to a new report released by the Immigration Policy Center which compares actual reform undertaken by the agency to reforms that were recommended to them by immigration policy experts, academics and community members that would instill fairness and due process.

While DHS struggles towards reform it has failed to meet some key expectations… The department has engaged thoughtfully and strategically on some issues… However, turning principles into practice has fallen short, and the practical realities for individuals caught up in the system have not necessarily changed for the better.

DHS has done well in some areas. Focus has been shifted away from from harsh worksite raids to a focus on  employers who hire undocumented workers. Welcome detention reforms have been announced particularly focused on healthcare and conditions of detention. A precedent was created whereby women who have suffered domestic violence are eligible for asylum. The Department was  efficient in responding to the earthquake in Haiti, granting Temporary Protected Status to Haitians in the U.S. and humanitarian parole to 500 orphans.

But the spirit of reform has been strangled by an “over-reliance on enforcement policies”. There has been little growth in community alternatives to detention or legally enforceable standards and people continue to face poor medicare care and substandard conditions. 2009 has seen the growth of partnerships with state and local law-enforcement that arm them with the power to enforce immigration law even though this is a federal responsibility. There has been a growth in programs that criminally prosecute those caught crossing the border, draining resources away from prosecution of serious crimes such as drug and human trafficking.

And the failures. There has been little tangible progress in the areas of due process, with the immigration court system continuing to remain overburdened, and an appeals process still compromised. The continued expansion of state and local law enforcement programs like Secure Communities and 287(g) programs have led to accusations of racial profiling and large scale prosecutions of individuals with no criminal history.

But although there are many areas where reform is desperately needed, ultimately these will be administrative measures carried by an administrative agency DHS. But the fundamental problems of the system will continue to grow until Congress works up the courage to institute just and humane immigration reform. We can only hope that the White House and Congress gives the broken immigration system the attention it deserves, so that rather than counting down another year of incomplete policies and inefficient reforms, we have a just and human immigration system that accounts for the realities on the ground.

Photo courtesy of fairimmigration.files.wordpress.com

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Obama authorizes refugee re-settlement, but in reality ICE is detaining the “unadjusted”

Picture 1On September 30th 2009, President Obama signed a Presidential Determination authorizing the admission of 80,000 refugees into the U.S. in the year 2010. This commitment to ensuring the protection and re-settlement of refugees has been an integral part of U.S. policy since the Refugee Act of 1980 that sought to:

Provide a permanent and systematic procedure for the admission of refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States and to provide comprehensive and uniform provisions for the effective resettlement and absorption of those refugees who are admitted.

The Act defines a refugee as someone who is:

Outside his country of nationality (or in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which he last habitually resided), and who is unable or unwilling to return to such country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

The White House release said that while the economic recession had presented new challenges to maintaining this and other humanitarian programs, the administration had “undertaken an in-depth review of the program with the goal of strengthening support to both the refugees and the communities in which they are being resettled.” In light of this declaration of strengthening support to refugees, it is shocking that the Department of Homeland Security has taken to detaining refugees who have not adjusted to Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) status after having been in the country for one year (also known as “unadjusted refugees”). While some of these refugees are apprehended by ICE after encounters with local law enforcement for minor offenses, some are taken in without any criminal charges at all. These refugees are then held in detention facilities for the entire duration of time that it takes for the application to be received and processed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

As per section 209 (a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), those refugees who have not acquired Permanent Residency within one year of residing in the U.S., “…shall, at the end of such year period, return or be returned to the custody of the Department of Homeland Security for inspection and examination for admission…” According to an article by Emily Creighton on Immigration Impact, ICE is misinterpreting “return to custody” too literally to allow for those refugees to be detained while USCIS processes their application.

This interpretation is particularly unfair since the law prohibits refugees from applying for permanent residence until one year after they have been admitted to the U.S. as refugees. In essence, ICE detains refugees for not doing what the law bars them from doing…DHS’ policy of detaining unadjusted refugees is extremely problematic—it is not required by the language of the statute and is unsupported by the policies that drove lawmakers to pass laws protecting refugees. The word “custody” in the statute does not require ICE to take physical custody of unadjusted refugees, something ICE’s predecessor organization recognized. The former Immigration and Nationality Service reasoned that “custody” in INA 209(a) could be satisfied by simply requiring refugees to apply for adjustment of status and compelling them to appear at the agency.

Not only do some of these application review processes take up to a year, but pursuing this application while in ICE custody can lead to further legal complications for the refugees. A number of human rights, refugee assistance and other advocacy groups have been urging DHS to change this policy of detention and have written numerous letters over the years to ensure that DHS and ICE adopt a more humane policy towards refugees that respects the long-standing national policy of protecting and rehabilitating refugees rather than further incarcerating them.

While the ISAP II program which is designed to allow individuals who present a low flight risk to avoid incarceration by agreeing to regular monitoring offers an alternative, the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller, believes that it’s still too early to know whether or not this offers the best alternative for asylum seekers; “the objectives of many alternatives to detention systems are enforcement objectives. UNHRC believes that humanitarian considerations should take on a higher profile.”

Still many asylum-seekers in the United States are held in detention centers, alongside those facing immigration and criminal charges, while their cases are being processed.  The most recent figures from DHS indicate that approximately 10,000 of the more than 300,000 individuals detained were asylum seekers. According to a 2003 report published by the Physicians For Human Rights and entitled ‘From Persecution to Prison: The Health Consequences of Detention for Asylum Seekers‘, being detained further can be severely traumatic and detrimental for people who are fleeing persecution, threat and torture in their own countries.

Detention can induce fear, isolation and hopelessness, and exacerbate the severe psychological distress frequently exhibited by asylum seekers who are already traumatized…Physicians, experienced in evaluating and caring for asylum seekers, found extremely high symptom levels of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the detained.

In our video, Restore Fairness, Jean-Pierre Kamwa, an asylum seeker from Cameroon, provides a powerful testimony on the psychological ramifications of seeking protection only to be incarcerated when he landed in JFK airport.

Photo courtesy of www.physiciansforhumanrights.org

Mentally disabled detainees denied due process

Photo courtesy: The New York Times

When a government decides to deprive someone of their liberty, that government is responsible for ensuring that all of that person’s health care needs are met, including mental health needs.

In a shocking expose, The New York Times has published an article focusing on the plight of immigrants with mental illness who face deportation. Xiu Ping Jiang is an immigrant from China seeking asylum in the U.S.

For a year and a half Ms. Jiang, a waitress with no criminal record and a history of attempted suicide, was locked away in an immigration jail in Florida. Often in solitary confinement, she sank ever deeper into mental illness, relatives say, not eating for days, or vomiting after meals for fear of being poisoned.

Mental illness in U.S. prisons and immigration detention is a growing problem. This problem is especially acute when torture survivors and asylum seekers who arrive in the U.S. already traumatized are then placed in detention ill-equipped to handle their mental health needs.

Given their vulnerability, its easy to see how immigrants with mental disabilities can be denied a fair hearing. One of the major reasons for this is also that immigrants are not entitled a right to a lawyer. Although emerging international standards favor a right to counsel, the U.S. does not agree, and as a result, many immigrants are unable to afford counsel and represent themselves.

Like Ms. Jiang who languished in detention for many months. Other cases have documented U.S. citizens with mental disabilities unlawfully deported.

All of this has prompted a group of 77 mental health experts, civil rights lawyers and immigration advocates to send a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asking for protections. Many advocates have also pinned their hopes on an upcoming Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on september 15th on ‘Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons and Detention Facilities’.

Ms. Jiang was finally released from detention because the New York Times publicized her case. She is awaiting a final decision. Not everyone is so lucky.

Photo courtesy of www.nytimes.com