The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has, once again, stepped up to defend the rights of the defenseless. This time, it was to defend a handicapped man who suffers from moderate retardation. Jose Antonio Franco, a 30-year-old man with a mental age of two, was facing deportation from the U.S. but his case came to a sudden halt when an immigration judge realized that he could not understand the proceedings, and had no representative. But because there is no system in place to find disabled detainees legal representation, Franco ended up spending the next five years in an immigrant detention center. The ACLU came upon Franco’s case when someone from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) contacted an immigration group to find out what to do with him. The case eventually ended up in the hands of attorney Jennifer Stark who works in conjunction with the Equal Justice Works fellowship at the ACLU in Southern California, and represents immigrants with mental disabilities. “We have no idea how many other Mr. Francos there are throughout the country at this point in time, and perhaps how many people are not as lucky because they’ve been deported,” she was quoted saying.
Ms. Stark communicated her concern for “the treatment of immigrants, particularly those who are in detention and those with disabilities” which she confidently believes to be “one of the most pressing human rights issues in the United States at this time.” Some of her clients are refugees, but most are people who have lived in the U.S. legally their entire lives, and who have- for one reason or another-fallen prey to the criminal justice system, often over something minor, and face deportation as a result even though they have a notable and significant disability. Ms. Stark recalls one client of hers who ended up in detention after he developed schizophrenia and got into a fight over tomatoes. As with Franco’s case, immigration judges often realize that the disabled defendant does not understand the proceedings or cannot represent themselves and end up closing the case. Yet because of the lack of procedures in place to establish that a detained immigrant is mentally disabled or to ensure adequate representation, legal proceedings can be delayed- and in fact often are- for up to two years while the immigrant remains in detention.
Fortunately, in this case, a judge eventually ruled that because he could not get a full and fair hearing without representation, the U.S. government would have to provide it for them. Franco was then released from the detention center and was able to reunite with his family. His attorney, Ms. Stark, said that this success means that he won’t be returned to a country where he lacks family ties and lacks access to healthcare and where he would have been “at risk of exploitation and violence.” This past November, she filed a class action lawsuit to try to establish a universal right to legal representation for clients with disabilities, and is now working on making this national law. “This class action lawsuit is a response to the fact that we can’t depend on any positive legislation coming our way at any point in the future. Legislative reform would be a very positive development, but we cannot proceed waiting and hoping that that will happen,” she said.
We applaud this as an incredible accomplishment and support her attempts to mend the broken system. This act of solidarity is one that sheds a ray of hope for the lives of those who have been caught in the immigration web and suffer from mental disabilities. We are certain that a law to secure their rights will have a profound impact on the lives of many others who may face removal from this country, and hope that each and every one may be so lucky as to have such a positive outcome in their case.