LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Five days after a team of civil rights lawyers filed lawsuits on behalf of two immigrants with mental disabilities who were locked up for years after being judged mentally incompetent to understand the proceedings against them, federal officials announced the two men would be released from custody.
Jose Antonio Franco and Guillermo Gomez Sanchez are being released to their families today from immigration facilities in Santa Ana and San Bernardino. Both men will be placed on electronic monitoring and will be provided with treatment in community health centers.
“I am so happy, and so is my whole family,” said Ruben Franco, Jose Antonio Franco’s brother. “We have waited five years for this moment. We can’t wait to spend time with my brother. This was such a long struggle that nobody should have to go through. We want to make sure he gets back his life and returns to school.”
On March 26, two affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union, Public Counsel in Los Angeles and the Casa Cornelia Law Center in San Diego, filed lawsuits in U.S. Federal District Courts in Southern California charging that in addition to violating the men’s due process rights, officials violated federal immigration statutes as well as federal discrimination laws designed to protect people with disabilities.
“We are pleased that the government has agreed to release both of these detainees after years of unwarranted detention, but we remain concerned about the fate of many other detainees who remain „lost – in the immigration prison system due to their mental disabilities,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, director of immigrant rights and national security for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “We hope the government will agree to conduct a prompt review to identify the other detainees with similar mental health issues, and determine through hearings whether release is appropriate for them as well. Justice in such cases should not require that the detainee have the good fortune to be represented by public interest lawyers.”
Talia Inlender, a staff attorney with Public Counsel, who met Mr. Franco through her work running a legal clinic at a local immigration detention center and has been advocating for months to secure his release, said that she’s pleased he is being freed. “But it shouldn’t have taken a federal lawsuit being filed to get the government to reach this common sense result,” Inlender said.
Mr. Franco, 29, is the son of lawful permanent residents. He suffers from mental retardation severe enough that he doesn’t know his own age or birthday, and cannot tell time or dial phone numbers. Mr. Franco was held in various detention facilities around Southern California, including a jail in Santa Ana, since April 2005. He remained in custody despite the fact that a judge closed his immigration case nearly five years ago after finding him mentally incompetent to understand the proceedings against him. The government did not move to reopen his case until three months ago. Mr. Franco was not given a bond hearing to determine whether he presented a danger that would have justify his prolonged detention, or whether his detention was even appropriate in light of his disability.
Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez is a 48-year-old man who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He was held by immigration officials since December 2005. An immigration judge administratively closed his case for two-and-a-half years after the Department of Homeland Security failed to administer a psychiatric evaluation of him. When the case was reopened in June 2008, a judge ordered Mr. Gomez-Sanchez released on a $5,000 bond. But attorneys for the DHS challenged the bond order, even though Mr. Gomez-Sanchez was found to be neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community.
“Mr. Gomez-Sanchez will finally be back in the care of his family after several long years in detention, much of which he suffered in a legal black hole,” said Sean Riordan, staff attorney for the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “While we welcome the government’s decision to release Mr. Gomez-Sanchez, he should have been released long ago. It is imperative that the government implement policies to ensure that incompetent individuals like Mr. Gomez-Sanchez are not lost in a system of harsh immigration prisons without due process.”
The exact number of detainees with severe mental disabilities is unclear, but some reports estimate that at least two to five percent of the immigrants detained by immigration authorities nationwide – or 7,000 to 19,000 individuals – might have a serious mental disability. Yet, unlike our nation’s criminal justice system, the immigration system has no standard procedures to resolve cases against detainees with mental disabilities who have been ruled incompetent to follow the proceedings against them. The petitions filed today aim to end the haphazard approach that has led to such tragic circumstances for Mr. Franco and Mr. Gomez-Sanchez, and which could undoubtedly lead to other, similar cases.