Mentally Ill Immigrants Neglected in Detention System

Mentally Ill Immigrants Neglected in Detention System

A new report finds the care of mentally disabled immigrants in the detention system sorely lacking, leading to neglect and miscarriages of justice throughout the adjudication, detention, release and repatriation processes.

“Unfortunately this system fails – and further marginalizes – this vulnerable population. Immigrants with mental disabilities are unnecessarily detained in a system ill-equipped to care for them, sometimes arbitrarily transferred away from their communities, often denied basic due process in a complex immigration court system, and all too frequently released from detention or removed from the United States with little concern for their safety and well-being,” the report stated.

This was the result of a yearlong investigation conducted by Texas Appleseed, a public interest law center and Akin Gump, a corporate law firm, of the handling of mentally disabled people in the immigration detention system in Texas. The report questioned lawyers, detainee center employees and immigrants in the detention center system.

The detainees surveyed for the “Justice for Immigration’s Hidden Population” report were mostly apprehended in New York and the Northeast, many from mental hospitals, and were often moved to Texas without medication or medical records. The mental disabilities that they suffer from range from “trauma as a result of persecution to depression caused by detention, from intellectual deficits to profound mental illness.” About 29 percent of detainees in the country are held in Texas while they undergo deportation procedures.

With over 230,000 cases decided in immigration courts annually, the pressure to meet government quotas leads to the mental incompetence of detainees being routinely ignored by immigration judges and deportation officers, the report said.

It identified four main areas of concern, and offered policy recommendations for each: “improving mental health diagnosis and treatment in the civil immigration detention system,” “removing barriers to accessing immigrants’ medical records” to avoid misdiagnosis and mistreatment, “ensuring fair treatment of immigrants with mental disabilities in immigration court” and “ensuring safe release or repatriation of detainees with mental disabilities.”

Health screenings are often not performed, and if they are, they do not identify mental health conditions, according to the Appleseed report, and lead to cases such as that of a 50-year-old legal resident declared mentally incompetent by a New York criminal court. After being ordered by the New York court to serve 90 days in a mental institution, the man was apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) before the order was carried out, and transferred to Willacy County Detention Facility without his family’s knowledge. During his time in detention, his mental health deteriorated to the point where he refused to continue to fight his case – it was only won after he was appointed a guardian. His prolonged detention time led to undue suffering as well as increased cost to the government.

On average, each person detained costs from $97 to $141 per immigrant per day, and ICE will spend about $1.77 billion on detention in fiscal year 2010. Despite this fact, the report said that ICE regularly ignores “its existing discretionary decision-making powers to allow immigrants with mental disabilities to remain in the community where they can continue to receive treatment and family support while their immigration status is adjudicated.”

The report also identified a lack of transparency and accountability and a deficit of qualified medical professionals. Along with “poorly trained judges, hostile DHS prosecutors, inadequate translation and the prejudicial use of videoconferencing for hearings” in immigration courts, this makes the immigration detention system detrimental to the treatment of the most vulnerable group of people who pass through the system.

In one case, “personnel at the South Texas Detention Complex left a physically disabled woman with mental illness naked on the floor in solitary confinement, bleeding from her menstrual cycle. She was left in this state for several days with no sanitary napkins.”

In another, a man who had arranged to pick his son up at the airport following his voluntary repatriation “was told that his son [who suffered from schizophrenia] had been deported four days earlier than originally planned, due to the vacation plans of his deportation officer.” The son has still not been located two years later though a body matching his description was located in a morgue in Tijuana, Mexico, the report said. However, the body in the morgue was said to have died days before the sons’ deportation date.

Detention has been a primary focus of immigration enforcement since 1996, when Congress passed legislation authorizing detention for many categories of immigration violations. Though ICE recently acknowledged that detainees are held in “facilities largely designed for penal, not civil, detention,” the population now languishing in detention centers continues to grow: in 1994, the daily population of immigrants in detention was 5,532; as of September 2009, it was 31,075 people.

The risk of lengthened detention also increases when a mentally disabled person is unable to navigate the system. In 2009, about 19,000 people were detained for more than four months, and 2,100 for more than a year. ICE has little data regarding mentally ill detainees, but the report estimates that 15 percent of people in the immigration detention system have a mental disorder, and immigration officers often apprehend people at mental health institutions and hospitals.

According to the report, what is missing in the system is a basic recognition of mentally ill immigrants as needing special care. “People are nervous about treating people (in detention) like human beings,” a detention facility mental health practitioner interview in the report said. “They treat them as detainees or criminals, so there is no empathy or sympathy.”