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Lawsuit aims to protect mentally ill immigrants in court

Immigrants in North Carolina often have to overcome many hurdles to enter and remain in the United States. The task can be even more daunting to those immigrants with mental illnesses. To make matters worse, the government has not given courts sufficient guidance regarding how to deal with mentally ill immigrants, especially those who do not have a lawyer to represent them.

The recent case of a man in California demonstrates the difficulty such immigrants face in protecting their rights. The man, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression 14 years ago, faced deportation for the beating of his stepfather in 2008. He appeared in immigration court via a video conferencing system hooked up to the detention center where he was being held. He could not afford a lawyer or find one to represent him pro bono. The judge asked him a series of questions, and it quickly became clear from his long pauses that he didn't understand anything asked of him.

His mother, who was in the courtroom, intervened and showed the judge her son's medical records. Immigration officials examined him while he was in custody in 2009 and noted that he was mentally ill. But somehow this information was never given to the court. After reviewing his medical file, the judge ruled that he was not able to understand the court proceedings and ended his removal proceedings. Immigration officials have appealed the judge's decision.

Regrettably, this man's circumstances are not unique. Many other mentally ill immigrants face a similar fate, their cases delayed time and again as judges attempt to find a fair way to handle them. They are detained for months and many lack the protection of a lawyer. A lawsuit filed by the ACLU and other organizations aims to force the government to give mentally ill immigrants lawyers and hearings to determine their competency.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Detained immigrants with mental illnesses face barriers in court," Paloma Esquivel, Feb. 7, 2012.

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