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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.

Haitian earthquake survivors amongst those in immigration detention centers

Where have all the promises gone?

The Obama administration has delivered many promises, not least of which is to deliver desperately needed reforms to an unwieldy and unjust immigration detention system.

So why is it that the New York Times reported today that 30 survivors of the devastating Haiti earthquake were rushed out of Haiti during aftershocks at the airport, only to be thrown into immigration detention centers on U.S. soil in far flung areas, confined while dealing with the traumas of what they had encountered back home. Many have relatives in the U.S. who are desperate to take them in. They are neither flight risks, nor a danger to the community. Yet, they continue to remain detained. Like Jackson,

who was trapped in the collapse of his family’s apartment building in the quake… His formal request for release, dated March 12, describes how even the sound of someone on the jail stairs makes him fear another earthquake and worry that because he is locked up, he will be unable to escape.

The detainees have received little or no mental treatment for their trauma. This is not surprising, given a new report from a public interest law center Texas Appleseed that documents the shocking treatment and lack of due process meted out to immigrants with mental disabilities. The case studies are astounding. Take for example a 50-year-old legal permanent resident who had lived in the United States since 1974. Declared incompetent by a New York criminal court, he was ordered to serve 90 days in a mental institution, but before anyone could blink, he was transferred far away to a detention center in Texas for deportation without his family’s knowledge. Even though he was suffering from severe schizophrenia, he went without his medication for a month, as detention centers are notorious for medical mistreatment, and this extends even further to mental illness. As his sister said

If they deport him, it will be the end of his life and the end of my mother’s life. My mother says he will die out there in the streets.

The example illustrates the continuing emphasis on enforcement only approach. Even though many immigrants are neither flight risks, they are mandatorily detained in far flung locations. Even though detention is a civil sanction, people in the system are treated as criminals, required to wear prison uniforms, housed in cells and monitored constantly. More than 33,000 immigrants are held daily in a network of privately contracted facilities and state and local jails. Imagine the state of someone with a mental illness in an increasingly overwhelmed system. Moreover, 84% of detainees have no legal counsel – so in an overburdened court system, mentally ill detainees are often left defending themselves.

The report documents what health professionals in the facility have to say. Like one Detention Facility Nurse who stated, rather matter of factly, that “When they are crazy and cannot be managed they go to ‘seg’ [segregation] when there is not room in the short stay unit.”Detainees are often given the wrong drugs, or accused of faking their illness. The worst is when they are let free, often suddenly in the middle of nowhere where the detention facility is located, without any resources. Like the tragic story of a delusional Mexican national suffering from schizophrenia whose father had arranged with immigration for his son’s voluntary departure by plane to Mexico, where he was to be picked up by his mother. But when he called the deportation officer to confirm the travel arrangements, he was told that his son had been deported four days earlier than originally planned, due to the vacation plans of his deportation officer. He still remains missing two years later, though the body of a young man who fits his son’s description remains in a morgue in Tijuana.

Day by day, violations in detention continue, even as a leaked memo from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has revealed the need to meet larger quotas of immigrants for deportation, contrary to the official stand by the administration that they are mainly targeting immigrants who have criminal convictions. According to the ACLU,

The ACLU and select immigration groups met Monday with ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton and his senior staff to discuss the reported quota policy and Detention and Removal Office (DRO) priorities. At the meeting, James M. Chaparro, the DRO director who wrote the memo, which was apparently not cleared by the Assistant Secretary, apologized for his “tremendous error”… Assistant Secretary Morton denied the use of quotas, stated his commitment to work together in a “spirit of candor and transparency” and asked to be “judged on the record, not on rumors.”

But many are not believing the “bad apple” story. Key immigrant and Latino organizations have called on President Obama and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to dismiss John Morton. “The reality is that ICE has gone rogue and needs to be reined in with dramatic action,” said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change.

Growing frustration is leading to more broken families and destroyed futures. No more promises we say again. It’s time for concrete action.

UPDATE: From the New York Times – More than three dozen Haitian earthquake survivors were released from Florida immigration jails on Thursday after more than two months in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Immigration officials said 40 Haitian survivors would be released on orders of supervision by nightfall. This came on the day that The New York Times reported that at least 30 earthquake survivors were being detained. Lawyers said the federal government was now reversing a practice adopted after the earthquake, to hold Haitians for at least 90 days after a deportation order before considering them for supervised release. Those released can be returned to Haiti when deportations resume.

Photo courtesy of globevision