Law School Students Secure Freedom for Mentally-Ill Immigrant Detained for Over Two Years

by Kathryn M. Doan, Esq.

Now full-fledged attorneys, former law students Erica Morgan and Edmundo Saballos spent nearly a year fighting to defend the rights and dignity of their client, I.P., a young man from Honduras who suffered from such severe mental illness that at one point he stopped talking altogether and could only communicate through hand gestures.

I.P. was initially detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in July 2007 and held in a local Virginia jail.  Despite exhibiting signs of mental illness such as cutting himself and refusing to eat, I.P. was not given a formal mental health assessment.  Instead, was left to languish in solitary confinement for over a year while his mental health continued to worsen.

By the time ICE finally issued a Notice to Appear and placed him in immigration court proceedings, I.P.’s mental condition had deteriorated to the point of incompetency, vastly complicating efforts to ensure that his due process rights were protected during any court proceedings.

In November 2008, CAIR Coalition placed the case with Ms. Morgan and Mr. Saballos, students enrolled in the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University’s Washington College of Law, working under the supervision of Practitioner in Residence, Meetali Jain.  Ms. Morgan and Mr. Saballos tried numerous strategies to try to help their client, starting with a request that he be transferred to a facility that could provide him with the mental health care that he needed.  They also petitioned the court for a competency hearing for their client and asked that a guardian ad litem be appointed. (In certain civil matters, a guardian ad litem may be appointed to assist counsel in determining the wishes of a mentally incompetent client.)

However, unlike judges presiding over criminal matters or other types of civil proceedings, immigration judges have no formal procedures for determining when an individual appearing before them is not competent, nor do they have any set procedures for safeguarding the due process rights of persons suffering from mental illness.  Each immigration court is different when it comes to dealing with individuals who are mentally ill, and this lack of uniform standards undermines the ability of counsel to competently represent their immigration clients.

Eventually, ICE agreed to transfer I.P to Columbia Care in South Carolina, a private mental health facility which contracts with ICE to provide mental health care to those detainees who are the most severely ill.  Once he started to receive appropriate treatment, I.P. improved significantly, and after a number of months he regained his competency.   In consultation with his attorneys and his family, I.P. decided that he wanted to return to Honduras where he had family members who were willing to help care for him.  In an unusual step, ICE not only agreed to voluntary departure (a better option for the client than a final order of deportation), they also paid for the cost of his transportation to Honduras.  In addition, the Department of Immigration Health Services communicated with officials in Honduras about I.P.’s need for medical care and provided him with a month’s supply of medication.  In September 2009, I.P. finally returned home to Honduras, ending a two year saga in immigration custody that had, for a time, cost him his sanity.

According to Ms. Morgan, “working on I.P.'s case opened my eyes to an entire immigrant population who become invisible in immigrant detention because of their mental illnesses. Because of the inaction of ICE and the jail, we had to work twice as hard to get I.P. the mental health treatment to which he was entitled. CAIR Coalition and our professor, Meetali Jain, were instrumental in our efforts. CAIR Coalition introduced us to other attorneys and advocates working on the issue of access to mental health treatment in immigration detention. I learned that being persistent with ICE and using other immigrant rights' advocates as resources and allies are the most valuable things needed to be an immigration attorney. My experience representing I.P. and working with CAIR was invaluable. I believe that I am a better attorney because of it.”

Mr. Saballos was similarly impacted, both personally and professionally, by his work on I.P.’s case.  According to Mr. Saballos, “representing my client before the Immigration Court was, for me, the most rewarding experience I had in law school.  With the support of WCL's International Human Rights Law Clinic and the CAIR Coalition, I was able to become intimately familiar with the challenges out-of-status immigrants face in the labyrinth that is our immigration system.  In addition to gaining first-hand knowledge in an area I hope one day to make my career, I also learned to practice the patience and empathy all client-service cases require.  As I.P. was mentally ill, severely so at the beginning of this matter, this case presented particular challenges that are unfortunately not uncommon.  Luckily, we were able to get him the treatment he so badly required.  I am grateful for this experience and I am confident that I am a more able and effective attorney because of my participation in this case.”

CAIR Coalition is very grateful to Ms. Morgan and Mr. Saballos for their willingness to take on such a challenging case and to American University and the International Human Rights Law Clinic for making this partnership possible.  Representing an immigrant detainee like I.P. who is suffering from severe mental illness requires an incredible amount of perseverance and creative lawyering on the part of counsel.  Ms. Morgan and Mr. Saballos did an outstanding job and the experience has helped both of them to become better lawyers.


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