Immigrant civil rights

The U.S. Constitution guarantees those accused of violating the law a right to an orderly, fair process. But for many detained by the civil system of immigration courts, those rights do not apply. That is why we applaud a recent decision by a federal court in the case of Franco-González v. Holder. Here, the court ordered that those detained by immigration authorities who suffer mental disabilities must be provided legal representation.

The case of José Antonio Franco, the named plaintiff in the lawsuit, is not unique but it is hard-hitting enough to illustrate the little humanity of the U.S. immigration justice system. The Costa Mesa resident, 32, who has the mental age of a child due to a cognitive disability, spent more than five years in four different detention centers in Southern California without going to court or having a hearing—until a deportation official took pity on him and called Public Counsel, a legal aid organization.

Not only was Franco processed for a crime and convicted to one year in prison, despite his mental disability, because he happened to be in the middle of a gang war. Then, when he was turned over to immigration authorities after serving his sentence with the county, an immigration judge found that he lacked the ability to understand the deportation process and decided not to deport him. But instead of releasing him to his family, his mother María or one of his 11 siblings, the authorities locked him in detention centers in Southern California, where they forgot him and never gave him his day in court or a new hearing.

The lack of humanity of this case is a monstrosity and unworthy of a developed country like ours.. Franco could have languished in that situation for many more years if attorneys from nonprofit organizations had not found out about his case. Other detainees like him are also named in the lawsuit.

It is necessary to change the U.S. immigration system. The immigration reform bill introduced recently by eight senators includes a federal government mandate to provide immigration defense in deportation cases involving children, the mentally disabled and other vulnerable immigrants. It is time for our immigration system to move into the 21st century and stop systematically violating human and civil rights.