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Immigration detainees: Lost in America

The immigration courts system is failing those detainees who have serious mental disabilities.

July 12, 2011|By Talia Inlender

Trinity Park, south of downtown Los Angeles, is bustling on a late Friday afternoon. I scan the crowd: teenagers on skateboards, a heated game of pickup basketball, a couple holding hands. Then I see a man lying back in the grass, a crumpled brown paper bag in his lap, staring into the afternoon sun with clouded yellow eyes. He looks like a regular here; maybe he knows. "Disculpe señor," I start, "I'm looking for a man named Miguel. He used to live around here. Late 50s, early 60s. A big scar on the top of his head. Have you seen him?"

It's been more than two months since Miguel Canto went missing. But he has been lost for a lot longer. For 10 months, Canto — a man with a brain injury so severe he cannot remember his own birth date — was one of nearly 400,000 men, women and children who are caught up in our nation's immigration detention system every year. On April 25, the government released Canto from custody. He was taken to a homeless shelter, and the next day he walked out into the bright Southern California light.

As an attorney suing the government over its treatment of detainees like Canto, I've heard a lot of convoluted stories. His was among the hardest I've had to piece together. When I first saw him in January through the thick glass of a jail meeting room, he shuffled slowly, looking slightly disheveled in his standard-issue orange uniform. "Buenas tardes, Sr. Canto, how are you doing today?" He nodded obligingly and brought his hands up to his chest as if to pray. "Do you know why you're here?" He shook his head. "I don't know anything." "Do you know how long you've been here?" He squinted, thought hard. "I don't remember." Pointing to the scar on his skull, he explained, "I can't think right."

Canto hasn't always been this way. His older brother Guzman, a U.S. citizen working on a farm north of Los Angeles, remembers a lively man who worked at a liquor store, exercised in the evenings and dressed well. He had "high tastes, not like his brother," Guzman told me. A car accident years ago changed everything.

The doctors told Canto's family that, if he survived, he would probably never be able to walk or talk again. The doctors were wrong. Slowly, Canto became mobile. He regained his speech but not his memory, or his ability to read and write. "Sometimes," Guzman told me, "he sees me and he doesn't know who I am."

Canto was taken into immigration custody in June 2010, and was charged with being in the United States illegally. He had no representation — detainees are not guaranteed a lawyer in immigration courts. Canto was transferred to a detention center in New Mexico. In October, after months of detention and multiple hearings at which he stood alone before the court, an immigration judge found that the case against Canto could not move forward. The judge, unsure whether Canto understood his questions, determined that he could not comply with minimal due process requirements.

After the judge threw out the case, the government transferred Canto back to California and refiled the charges. He went before a different immigration judge. In April, after six more months of detention and six more court hearings at which Canto could not speak for himself and had no one to speak for him, the second immigration judge — like his colleague — "terminated" the case. He was released to the Mexican Consulate, and a staff member there arranged for him to spend a night at a shelter. At 7:30 the following morning, Canto left the shelter. He never returned.

Canto is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of immigration detainees who suffer from serious mental disabilities, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU last year. Jose Franco, the son of lawful permanent residents, was held for nearly five years despite a judge's finding that his mental retardation made him incapable of defending himself. Ever Martinez, a lawful permanent resident, was held for 18 months and forced to represent himself amid the fog of his schizophrenia. Before he went missing, Canto was poised to join these men and many others in a class-action suit that demands an end to such absurdities.

This is not a call for amnesty for immigrants with mental disabilities; rather, it is a plea for due process. The stories of these men are the inevitable result of an immigration detention system that fails to appoint counsel for people with severe mental disabilities. If Canto had been arrested for a crime, the judge would have appointed a lawyer to assist him. But in the immigration courts, he was left on his own. A free legal services attorney might have been able to help, but there are not enough of them to come close to meeting the overwhelming need.

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