Obama Administration’s Deportation Surge and the Legal Limbo of Migrants with Mental Disabilities

Peter Slevin takes a look at the Obama administration’s policy for dealing with illigal immigrants in custody and finds a sharp increase in the number of migrants the United States is deporting. From the Washington Post:

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency expects to deport about 400,000 people this fiscal year, nearly 10 percent above the Bush administration’s 2008 total and 25 percent more than were deported in 2007. The pace of company audits has roughly quadrupled since President George W. Bush’s final year in office.

The effort is part of President Obama’s larger project “to make our national laws actually work,” as he put it in a speech this month at American University. Partly designed to entice Republicans to support comprehensive immigration reform, the mission is proving difficult and politically perilous.

Most of the people deported were arrested on a criminal charge, like drug possession or tresspassing and then entered into the long and confusing deportation process.  The thing is, according to a new Human Rights Watch and ACLU report out today, a great number of migrants facing deportation are beset with mental disabilities. 

At least 57,000 detained immigrants facing deportation in 2008 – 15 percent of the total – had mental disabilities. Under current immigration law and practice, immigration detainees have no right to court-appointed lawyers or to other safeguards, such as evaluations of their ability to receive a fair hearing, when they go through deportation hearings, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU said. While some individuals receive pro bono representation from legal services organizations or are able to pay a lawyer with family assistance, the vast majority will never be able to afford or find a lawyer, thus risking prolonged and possibly indefinite detention.


The report also shows that people with mental disabilities not only face arrest and deportation without safeguards, but are also routinely detained by ICE during the course of their hearings. Detention often becomes unduly prolonged when immigrants with mental disabilities are unable to speak on their own behalf, leading even court officials to recognize that the hearings cannot or should not proceed. In some cases, people have been detained for as long as 10 years without resolution of their cases.

So what happens when you combine a Kafkaesque process for detaining and deporting migrants with generally abysmal public systems for providing mental health services to the indigent?  Consider this story about Alberto B, a bi-polar man facing deportation to a country in which he has never lived and does not speal the language: 

Alberto B. was one-and-a-half years old when his family moved to the United States from Portugal in 1967. He became a legal permanent resident, or “green card” holder, and grew up in Massachusetts with his parents and siblings, some of whom became US citizens. Alberto has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental impairment that causes severe shifts in mood, energy, and ability to function. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, Alberto wrote: “I’ve been on psych meds since 2004, my guess. I finally turned myself in for help, FORGET MY PRIDE, I [knew] I had a problem. SINCE A very, very, young age…”

In 2008, Alberto spent 50 days in an in-patient psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts and was homeless after his release. Alberto claims that he lost his medication  ater that year, and was arrested for theft and trespassing a few days later. Alberto’s criminal defense lawyer did not raise his client’s mental competence in court.

Alberto agreed to a plea bargain, was released, and hopeful that a new attorney hired by his family would be able to vacate the criminal charges against him. But in February 2009, immigration officers arrested Alberto for deportation because of his outstanding criminal convictions, and sent him to the Port Isabel Detention Center in Harlingen, south Texas. Alberto had been held for approximately 11 months when a Human Rights Watch researcher met him. In a letter to us, he wrote:

[F]riends tell me just make a plea bargain with D.A. and get out of it. I didn’t know IT would add up to all of these [things]…being taking to Immigration Holding and brought all the way from mass to texas when I need my family’s moral support. Me needing my family moral support.

Alberto spent much of his time in detention in segregated medical housing due to his mental disability. He told Human Rights Watch that he has never seen the immigration charges against him, and has been unable to obtain his medical files. Despite several hearings in immigration court before his final hearing in December 2009, Alberto said he was never represented by a lawyer, even though he made repeated efforts to find one to represent him pro bono. “I’ve been to immigration court 5 times and I keep asking for time to get a lawyer,” he said. According to Alberto, the immigration court did not take his disabilities into account, even

though they may affect the underlying charges against him, and he told the judge that he had “a lot of mental issues.”4 At his final hearing in December, a judge ordered that Alberto be deported to Portugal, where he has no family and does not speak the language. “I have no idea what I will do there,” Alberto said. At time of writing, Alberto was still at Port Isabel, hoping his appeal would be granted.

The report is called Deportation by Default.