Study: Mentally Disabled Shortchanged by Immigration Detention Process

The immigration court and detention system are “grossly lacking” in due process protections and mental health treatment for immigrants with mental disabilities, according to a study released in late March by a social justice advocacy organization, Texas Appleseed, and a leading U.S. law firm, Akin Gump. The report, entitled Justice for Immigration’s Hidden Population, recommended a series of changes to fix the current defects in the system. (See:, and click Justice for Immigration’s Hidden Population)

According to Texas Appleseed, the report was based on a year-long study of the immigration court and detention system in Texas, where the state’s detention facilities house approximately a quarter of all immigrants apprehended in the United States – including those arrested in major cities in the Northeast. (See: Disabled Immigration Detainees Face Deportation, by Nina Bernstein, New York Times, 29.Mar.2010) As the New York Times reports, Texas Appleseed discovered that some detainees were apprehended in mental institutions and sent to detention centers in Texas “without medication or medical records, far from relatives and mental health workers who know their histories.” According to the Times, the dual pressures of increased caseloads and government quotas have caused removal (formerly, deportation) officers and immigration judges to routinely ignore issues of mental incompetence.

In a joint press release with Texas Appleseed, an Akin Gump representative said, “Immigrants with mental disabilities are detained in a system ill-equipped to care for them and often arbitrarily transferred away from their communities, denied basic due process in a complex immigration court system, and released from detention or removed from the U.S. with little concern for their safety and well-being.”

Among many examples documented in the study, the New York Times cited a case in point: a longtime New York City resident with schizophrenia – a 50-year-old with lawful permanent residence in the U.S. – was supposed to have been sent to a mental institution, after a New York court found him incompetent to stand trial on a trespassing charge. “Instead, he was transferred to the Willacy County Regional Detention Facility in South Texas, to face a deportation proceeding without counsel – so abruptly, the report said, that his family and lawyer did not know what had happened.”

In the future, people with mental disabilities should receive special legal protections, the study concludes, both from the immigration court and the detention system. Among the other recommendations are:

  • placing mentally-disabled immigrants in the least restrictive setting, and providing continued access to mental health services while their cases are pending;
  • establishing consistent mental-health screening and diagnostic procedures for immigrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody;
  • improving mental health care in detention, and ensuring timely access to medical records so that proper treatment – such as medication – can be provided;
  • requiring the Justice Department to set standards for recognizing immigrants with mental disabilities, and providing for their access to appointed legal counsel, when necessary;
  • requiring ICE to develop and follow clear procedures to ensure that immigrants with mental disabilities are safely released into their communities – here or overseas – following detention.

Ann Baddour, a Senior Policy Analyst who directed the Texas Appleseed study, told the New York Times that the mentally disabled have been victims of detention and deportation quotas set by ICE officials: “Setting these kinds of quotas only encourages the process of detaining people and taking them far from their infrastructure. When you take a mentally ill person from New York to rural Texas, you’re basically setting them up for almost certain deportation.”

This study is a wake-up call for our immigration system, serving as a reminder of the constant need for vigilance to ensure that justice and fundamental fairness are not sacrificed in our pursuit of national security. This is as much a matter of law as of basic human decency: we have a special responsibility to protect people who cannot protect themselves. Now that these problems have come to light, it is up to our immigration authorities to take prompt remedial action. Congress may wish to add this to the immigration reform agenda, as well.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.