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US rights groups urge greater protections for mentally disabled immigrants

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy websites] on Monday called on the US government to provide greater protection for those with mental disabilities in the US immigration system. In a joint report, "Deportation by Default" [text, PDF; press release], the rights organizations criticized the US immigration system, which they claim often disadvantages those with mental disabilities who cannot understand the proceedings against them or adequately defend themselves. The report, which defines mental disability to include those with mental health problems and intellectual disabilities, finds that the lack of procedural safeguards, such as the right to appointed counsel, inflexible detention policies and the lack of guidance for judges or attorneys on how to ensure a fair hearing for people with mental disabilities creates a situation that violates both US and international standards for justice and due process. The rights groups estimate that as many as 15 percent of people facing deportation proceedings suffer from mental disabilities. These failures, according to the rights organizations, impair the due process and judicial integrity. The report explains:

Due process is part of judicial integrity. It's a basic principle that this country has decided to prioritize. It's one of our greatest exports—we send people all over the world to talk about rule of law and how to reform judicial systems but we're not doing it here in our fastest growing judicial system[, the immigration courts]. Not every non-citizen with a mental disability is entitled to remain in the United States; but everyone is entitled to a fair hearing and a chance to defend his or her rights. If the US government is going to detain and deport individuals with mental disabilities, it must do so in a way that respects their human rights, honors US human rights commitments, and ensures fair and accurate court decisions.
The report went on urge the US government to take steps to ensure the rights of all people in the immigration system are upheld. These recommendations include calling on Congress to provide for appointed counsel in immigration proceedings and amend the Immigration and Nationality Act [text] to exempt from vulnerable groups from mandatory detention and deportation and for the Justice Department (DOJ) [official website] to put in place regulations to protect vulnerable non-citizens.

Last week, a Syracuse University research center study indicated that backlogs at US immigration courts are up by more than 30 percent [JURIST report] in the past 18 months. As of January 2009, there were an estimated 10.8 million illegal immigrants in the US, one million less than 2007, according to the Department of Homeland Security [official website]. In the same period, deportations have more than doubled, peaking at 387,790 last year. Federal authorities have indicated that the workload would continue to grow if Arizona's new immigration law [SB 1070 materials; JURIST news archive] is implemented. The Arizona law criminalizes illegal immigration and requires police officers to question an individual's immigration status if the officer has a "reasonable suspicion" to believe an individual is in the country illegally. The constitutionality of the law has been widely disputed, and the legislation is now facing several lawsuits [JURIST report]. Earlier this month, US President Barack Obama called for comprehensive immigration reform [JURIST report], noting the role of immigrants throughout US history and indicating that immigrants must continue to play a role as the country grows and develops.

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