Alberto was born in Portugal, but moved with his parents to the United States before his second birthday. In time, he received his green card, becoming a legal permanent resident.
But Alberto was bipolar, and as the decades ticked by, he found himself homeless in 2008 after a 50-day stint in a psychiatric hospital. He lost his medication later that same year, and soon after was arrested for theft and trespassing.
Eventually, Alberto accepted a plea deal and was released. But in 2009, immigration forces arrested him for deportation because of his outstanding criminal conviction. He was sent to the Port Isabel Detention Center in Harlingen, one of reportedly 20 such facilities in Texas, which is home to the largest number of immigration detention centers in the country.
Alberto was one of more than 100 detainees with mental disabilities, social workers, psychiatrists, immigration attorneys and others who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch, which released a report the other day chronicling the poor treatment of detainees with mental disabilities.
Alberto claimed that was never allowed to see the charges against him, obtain his own medical files, and was never represented by an attorney. He said that the immigration court did not consider his mental disabilities, and in December, he was ordered back to Portugal, where Alberto has no family and cannot speak or understand the language.
Human Rights Watch's report notes that while every non-citizen with mental disabilities is not entitled to remain in the United States, "everyone is entitled to a fair hearing and a chance to defend his or her rights."
The report's author compares immigration courts to criminal courts, and the former doesn't come out looking so good. In criminal court, someone who does not have the ability to understand the charges against him, the courtroom procedures or the fact that he is facing punishment, is often ruled ineligible to receive that punishment. Not so in immigration court.
Amongst numerous shortcomings, immigration judges "are not required to appoint lawyers or alter procedures to accommodate a person's limited comprehension; nor does any law or regulation instruct immigration judges to question whether a person facing deportation understands the charges against him or her, or even understands what deportation means," states the report.
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Among the cases it documented, Human Rights Watch found people who were delusional or experienced hallucination, who did not have an attorney, who did not know if they were allowed to tell the judge about their mental disabilities, and were never asked in court if they had a disability, were taking any medications, or needed help. The organization also found cases where ICE prosecutors did not tell the judge when someone had a mental disability, and either neglected or refused to conduct competency tests, even when ordered to by the court.
Among its list of suggested improvements, Human Rights Watch is calling for all non-citizens with mental disabilities to be appointed an attorney and for a competency standard necessary to proceed in immigration court.
The author did note that in 2010, the issue of mental disabilities was added to the Benchbook for Immigration Judges, "which is an encouraging step in the right direction."
Human Rights Watch estimates that 57,000 people with mental disabilities were involved in immigration proceedings in 2008, equal to about 15 percent of the total immigrant population in detention.