The vast majority of detainees, including children and the mentally ill, are forced to represent themselves in immigration court. That could, and should, change soon.November 8, 2011
In 2009, President Obama vowed to overhaul the nation's immigration detention system. Since then, his administration has taken some steps to deliver on that promise, such as providing detainees improved access to medical care and closing troubled facilities. But it has yet to provide the most meaningful fix: ensuring that indigent immigrants in detention have access to legal counsel.
Until now, federal courts have held that only criminal defendants are entitled to court-appointed counsel. An immigration case, even if it involves detention, is a civil matter. As a result, the vast majority of detainees, including children and the mentally ill, are forced to represent themselves in immigration court.
This month, however, a federal judge in Los Angeles could help bring some fairness to the system. U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee has been asked to decide whether to grant class-action status in a lawsuit brought on behalf of mentally disabled immigrant detainees who don't have the money to pay for legal representation. If Gee certifies the class under the Rehabilitation Act, which requires the government to accommodate people with disabilities, it could help hundreds, if not thousands, of people...MORE