JUDGE GRANTS RIGHT TO COUNSEL FOR IMMIGRANT DETAINEES WITH MENTAL DISABILITIES

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By Miriam Raftery

May 9, 2013 (San Diego's East County) -- For the first time, the United States government will offer legal counsel to immigrant detainees with mental disabilities facing deportation hearings. This is the first expansion of the right to counsel in 30 years – the result of an ACLU lawsuit. Before to last week's federal court ruling, these individuals were not guaranteed legal representation  even though they clearly demonstrated tremendous difficulty in representing themselves in the complicated legal proceedings against them.

José Gonzalezis a 33-year-old man who doesn't know his own age and, in many aspects of his life, has the cognitive ability of a two-year-old. Both his parents are lawful permanent residents of the United States, and José had a pending petition for residency. Until last week's historic ruling, the government expected José to represent himself in a deportation hearing – after holding him for five years in a detention facility.

The ruling by federal  Judge Dolly M. Gee at the Central District of California, in Los Angeles wasfollowed by federal immigration officials on Monday issuing a new policy that would effectively expand the California ruling nationwide, making government-paid legal representation available to people with mental disabilities in immigration courts in every state. New  policy indicates that the Justice Department, which runs the immigration courts, has accepted Judge Gee’s ruling.

About 34,000 immigrants are detained daily and government estimates indicate that at least 1,000 of them have mental disabilities of some kind. Like José, they were expected to represent themselves in deportation hearings – until the ACLU convinced a federal judge to order a change.

Our American system of justice requires a judge to appoint legal counsel in criminal court for those unable to secure counsel. But immigration courts and detention facilities have had no comparable safeguards to ensure representation of immigrants, regardless if a detainee could present a coherent defense. Now these individuals will be entitled to the same protections.