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The Department of Justice is taking some much needed steps to protect cognitively impaired immigrants who end up in immigration court, unable to navigate legal proceedings. Unlike in criminal court, defendants currently have no right to a free lawyer in immigration court. This has resulted in people who have valid claims to remain in the United States but cannot comprehend immigration law or access their documents due to cognitive impairment or mental illness being deported to countries they barely remember of have never been to with no support. Both documented and undocumented immigrants have met this fate which in effect has caused people to be wrongfully deported simply because they are cognitively impaired.
Currently, the Department of Justice is making policy changes to protect mentally impaired defendants in removal proceedings. This includes providing cognitively impaired defendants with free lawyers once they have been identified as having mental impairments that render them unable to understand legal proceedings. Controversy may rear its head because once identified, defendants with mental impairment do not have the right to refuse representation, but overall this new policy promises to save many people from wrongful deportation.
Unfortunately free lawyers for mentally impaired immigrants is only a band aid on the puzzle that effectively causes people to be deported for being mentally ill. Even if a cognitively impaired immigrant is saved from wrongful deportation by representation, there are still statutes that trigger mandatory deportation for some petty crimes. Since petty criminality and mental illness are generally accepted to be linked, it’s only a matter of time before the trigger goes off for these people. Immigration reform on a federal level is still necessary to cure the roots of this problem, although reformed policy in the Department of Justice is definitely a step in the right direction.
Source: Murray-Tjan, Laura. “Immigration Puzzle of the Week: Do We Deport People for Being Mentally Ill?” Huffington Post. January 10, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/laura-murraytjan/immigration-mentally-ill-deportation_b_4577314.html