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Court Protects|Mentally Ill Immigrants

LOS ANGELES (CN) - A federal judge gave the Obama administration 90 days to adopt policy changes to provide legal representation to immigration detainees with severe mental disabilities in three states.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered federal immigration officials to screen immigrants for mental disorders as soon as they are taken into custody. The Oct. 29 order also requires officials to share mental health documentation with immigration judges, and ensure that detainees are competent to stand before a judge.

After an initial screening, detainees must be assessed by a licensed psychiatrist or other healthcare worker within 14 days, Gee wrote in her order further implementing a permanent injunction.

A class of immigrants with serious mental disabilities sued the government in 2011, claiming they sometimes had been left to rot in detention facilities for years without counsel.

Gee ruled last year in that case, Jose Antonio Franco Gonzalez et al. v. Eric H. Holder, that the United States is obligated under the Rehabilitation Act to provide mentally disabled immigrant detainees in California, Arizona and Washington with attorneys.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California at the time touted the ruling as "historic" and a "landmark," calling it the first time a court had ever recognized immigrants' rights to legal counsel in immigration proceedings.

After Gee's ruling, Franco-Gonzalez's attorney, Carmen Iguina with the ACLU, said:

"The court in Franco-Gonzalez has issued yet another historic order in the case, this time establishing a comprehensive screening and competency determination system in the immigration detention centers and courts throughout Washington, California and Arizona."

In her ruling last year, Gee rejected the government's contention that providing counsel would place an "undue financial burden," and result in a "fundamental alteration of the immigration court system."

Law students and law graduates who had not yet been admitted to the bar could represent the class, Gee wrote. The judge also found that a requirement of representation was not inimical to the Immigration and Nationality Act.

The ACLU said that more than half of defendants in immigration courts, "including 84 percent of detained individuals," have to argue their cases without representation. Of the 34,000 immigrants detained every day, 1,000 are mentally disabled, the civil rights group said, citing government statistics.

Franco-Gonzalez, 33, functions "at the cognitive level of a child," the ACLU said.

"In April 2005, after serving a sentence in state criminal custody, José was transferred to immigration detention," the ACLU said. "A few months later, an immigration judge ordered the closure of his case, citing the finding by a government psychiatrist that José lacked even the most basic understanding of his immigration proceedings."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Attorney General Eric Holder and the Executive Office of Immigration Review have 90 days from the court's Oct. 29 order to implement the policy changes.

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