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Relevant Decisions

Last Updated: 
Fri, Dec 20, 2013

In contrast with criminalproceedings, removal proceedings include only minimal safeguards for respondents with mental disabilities. This page contains summaries of select cases addressing the rights of noncitizens with mental disabilities.

Federal Court Decisions

Franco-Gonzalez v. Holder, No. 10-02211 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 24, 2013): Federal Judge Orders Government to Provide Counsel to Detained Immigrants with Mental Disabilities Facing Deportation

In March 2010, attorneys from the ACLU of Southern California filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in a California federal district court on behalf of Jose Antonio Franco-Gonzalez, a Mexican citizen with a cognitive disability who had been in immigration detention for more than five years. Several months later, the ACLU and other organizations and attorneys filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Franco-Gonzalez and other detained unrepresented individuals with serious mental disorders in removal proceedings in California, Arizona, and Washington. The complaint stated that the government was required to 1) conduct competency evaluations for all those who the government knows or should know may be incompetent to represent themselves, 2) appoint attorneys for those found in need of counsel as a result of the evaluations, and 3) conduct custody hearings for those who face prolonged detention as a result of the delays caused by their mental disabilities. As a result of the habeas petition, ICE released Mr. Franco-Gonzalez from custody.

In April 2013, the district court judge ruled that the Rehabilitation Act requires the government to provide legal representation for individuals detained in California, Arizona and Washington who have serious mental disabilities and are unable to represent themselves in immigration court. This decision is unprecedented for the immigration courts, which do not require the government to appoint counsel for individuals who are unable to afford an attorney. Just prior to the decision,  the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security announced that they would issue nationwide policies providing protections for individuals with serious mental disorders, including “procedures that will make available qualified representatives to detainees who are deemed mentally incompetent to represent themselves in immigration proceedings.”

Lyttle v. United States, et al., No. 4:11-152 (M.D. Ga., filed Oct. 13, 2010); No. 10-142 (E.D.N.C. filed Oct. 13, 2010): U.S. Citizen with Mental Disabilities Sues over Wrongful Deportation

Mark Lyttle, a U.S.-born citizen with diminished mental capacity, was removed to Reynosa, Mexico in 2008 after spending 51 days in federal immigration detention. After spending four months wandering through Central America, he was brought to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City where authorities located his relatives in the United States and issued him a passport. Upon his return to the United States, Mr. Lyttle was detained again and ICE issued an expedited removal order against him. His family intervened before ICE could remove Mr. Lyttle from the United States a second time, and he was released.

In October 2010, Mr. Lyttle filed complaints in the Eastern District of North Carolina and the Northern District of Georgia, seeking damages from state agencies and federal officials based on his wrongful detention and deportation. In 2012, the Georgia district court granted in part and denied in part the defendants’ motion to dismiss, while a magistrate judge recommended that the North Carolina district court grant in part and deny in part the defendants’ motion to dismiss. Both district courts later stayed proceedings pending finalization of a settlement agreement between the parties.

BIA Decisions

Matter of M-A-M-, 25 I&N Dec. 474 (BIA 2011): Board Establishes Framework for Addressing Competency Issues

In Matter of M-A-M-, the Board for the first time set forth a framework for immigration judges to follow when hearing cases involving respondents with mental competency issues. In cases where the respondent exhibits “indicia of incompetency,” the immigration judge must make on-the-record findings and implement appropriate procedural safeguards to ensure a fair hearing. The test for determining whether a respondent is competent to participate in proceedings is whether he or she understands the nature and object of the proceedings, can consult with an attorney or representative (if there is one), and has a reasonable opportunity to examine adverse evidence, present favorable evidence and cross-examine government witnesses. If the immigration judge has good cause to believe a respondent lacks sufficient competency to proceed, appropriate procedural safeguards must be implemented. Of critical importance, the Board confirmed that the Department of Homeland Security has an obligation to provide immigration judges with any relevant materials in its possession regarding an immigrant’s mental competency.

While helpful, the Board’s decision leaves many important questions unanswered. The decision does not acknowledge that legal representation is indispensable to help immigrants who lack mental competency navigate the complex maze of immigration law. Nor does it address immigration judges’ lack of expertise in conducting competency assessments. Finally, the decision provides little discussion of how to proceed in cases involving respondents whose competency issues are so severe that no procedural safeguards would ensure a fair hearing.

In re G-B-N- (BIA remanded Aug. 23, 2010): BIA Grants Remand Following Discovery of Traumatic Brain Injury.

In August 2010, the BIA remanded to an Immigration Judge the case of a longtime legal permanent resident from Vietnam who, due to a traumatic brain injury, the BIA found could not competently represent himself at a prior removal hearing.  

After the government initiated removal proceedings against G-B-N- based on a decade-old conviction for attempting to import marijuana, G-B-N-, who was not represented by counsel, informed the immigration judge that doctors had diagnosed him with a “mental problem,” and made numerous statements contradicting information in his application for cancellation of removal. After G-B-N- retained counsel, his family learned for the first time of a neuropsychologist’s previous determination that G-B-N- had suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of a 2003 accident.  Based on the newly discovered information, counsel filed a motion to remand with the BIA, arguing that the IJ should have made a competency determination before conducting G-B-N-’s removal hearing. Ultimately, counsel for the government joined the motion, and the BIA remanded the case to the IJ on August 23, 2010.