Miami's Mentally Disabled Immigrants Abused by Court System, Report Says

When Allison Kent met her new client at the Krome Detention Center -- a Haitian man she now calls Mike C. -- should couldn't believe he'd been allowed to represent himself for weeks in court. Mike C., she learned, had an IQ of 56 and bipolar disorder.

Yet after two screenings, immigration prosecutors had decided Mike C. was competent. "He was getting no treatment, and he was too disabled to even tell people how bad his situation was," Kent says.

Cases exactly like Mike C.'s plague immigration courts in Miami and across the nation, according to a new report, which shows that prosecutors and judges routinely deport the mentally disabled, even when they lack the basic capability to understand what's happening.

The 98-page report, released this week by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, is based on 104 interviews with mentally disabled defendants in immigration courts. Several Miami cases represented by the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center -- Kent's employer -- are included.

The interviews show that many disabled defendants were "prevented from making claims against deportation -- including claims of U.S. citizenship -- because they were unable to represent themselves," the authors write.

Another of Kent's clients, a 29-year-old Dominican native named Luis, had earned five years' probation from an earlier criminal conviction after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. After a few years of group therapy and medication, he was making progress, Kent says -- until ICE picked him up to face deportation proceedings over the old charges.

Removed from therapy and undermedicated in Krome and the Glades Detention Center, in six months Luis quickly regressed to the point that he couldn't understand basic court proceedings, Kent says.

"Due process is violated when people are sent into court without representation and in a mental state where they can't represent themselves," she says.

Kelly Nantel, ICE's press secretary in Washington, released this statement about the report:

Many of the recommendations in the report are well placed. The fact of the matter is that ICE has been engaged in detention reform since August 2009, in an effort to increase oversight and transparency within the system, improve conditions of confinement and ensure quality medical and mental health care for the individuals in our custody. ICE continues to collaborate with members of the NGO community, including the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, on this very important issue.

The report's authors make several recommendations to remedy cases such as Luis's and Mike C.'s, including appointing mandatory representation for the mentally ill, waiving prison requirements for those in need of psychiatric care, and allowing prosecutors more discretion in which cases to pursue.

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