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First Class Action Filed On Behalf Of Detained Immigrants With Mental Disabilities

LOS ANGELES - The nation's first class action lawsuit on behalf of immigrant detainees with severe mental disabilities was filed Aug. 2 by a coalition of legal organizations led by Public Counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Sullivan & Cromwell LLP (Jose Antonio Franco-Gonzalez, et al. v. Eric Holder, Jr., et al., No. 10-CV-02211 DMG [DTB], C.D. Calif.).

Others participating in the suit include the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial County, Northwest Immigrants' Rights Project and Mental Health Advocacy Services.

The lawsuit asks a federal district court here to order the U.S. government to create a system for determining which non-citizens lack the mental competence to represent themselves and to appoint legal representation for those who are unable to defend themselves. Unlike the criminal court system - where appointed counsel is part of due process - immigration courts and detention facilities have no safeguards for ensuring that the rights of people with serious mental disabilities are protected.

"This broken system unjustly ruins the lives of detainees and their families," said Talia Inlender, staff attorney with Los Angeles-based Public Counsel. "Our country's values demand that we provide fair treatment for detained immigrants with serious mental disabilities."

The lawsuit grew out of the case of one man, Jose Franco-Gonzalez, who was the subject of a habeas petition filed last March. Franco was lost in detention facilities in California for nearly five years because of the government's failure to account for his mental retardation. His case came to the attention of Public Counsel, which launched a program in November 2008 to provide legal services for detained immigrants at the Santa Ana City Jail, where Franco was being held.

The six immigrants represented in the suit are from California and Washington, and all have been diagnosed with severe mental disabilities such as schizophrenia, depression and mental retardation. Several have been found incompetent to stand trial in other court proceedings.

The exact number of detainees with severe mental disabilities is unclear, but some reports estimate that at least two to five percent of the immigrants detained by immigration authorities nationwide - or 7,000 to 19,000 individuals - might have a serious mental disability.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California and assigned to Judge Dolly M. Gee.

Public Counsel is the largest pro bono law office in the nation.

Download the complaint.