A recent ruling by a judge in California’s federal court has ordered immigration courts in California, Arizona, and Washington to provide legal representation for mentally disabled immigrants facing deportation. The ruling will dramatically change the way that immigration court is conducted, and, in theory, save the federal government millions of dollars each year that was being spent to incarcerate these individuals for months and even years at a time.
The decision from Judge Dolly M. Gee was made regarding a class action lawsuit filed in 2010 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of plaintiffs like Jose Antonio Franco Gonzalez. Gonzalez, who suffers from mental retardation, was scheduled to be tried in immigration court for deportation, but because he could not argue for himself or understand the situation, has been shuffled between immigration prisons for more than five years.
The ruling would give immigrants like Gonzalez and others who are incapable of understanding their legal situation a representative in the courts at the expense of the federal government. It will also impact children facing deportation, who, until now, were forced to represent themselves, regardless of their age. Since those facing deportation are not considered U.S. citizens, the federal government was not obligated to provide them with attorneys in the event that they could not afford their own.
The New York Times reports that on Monday, federal immigration officers issued a policy that would expand the California ruling to ever other state.
According to the ruling, the provided representation can be by lawyers, students participating in law school clinics, or the immigration system’s equivalent of a paralegal. Representation will be assigned after a mental competency hearing. The ruling is expected to impact thousands of deportation cases each year, and while it is undoubtedly going to cost the federal government money to provide this type of representation, justice officials argue that the expenses will be balanced out by the reduction in detention for mentally handicapped immigrants.
“With counsel, these mentally disabled immigrants will not only have the chance to present their best cases on why they should not be deported,” said Michael H. Steinberg, a volunteer lawyer for this case from Sullivan & Cromwell. “They will also have a chance to fight for release under bond.”