Five days after civil rights lawyers filed a lawsuit on behalf of a mentally retarded immigrant who has been locked up for years after being judged mentally incompetent to understand the proceedings against him, federal officials announced the release of man from custody in Santa Ana.
Jose Antonio Franco has been placed on electronic monitoring and turned over to his family as he receives treatment from a community health center, according to a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
"I am so happy, and so is my whole family," Ruben Franco, the formerly incarcerated immigrant's brother, says in the same statement. "We have waited five years for this moment. We can't wait to spend time with my brother. This was such a long struggle that nobody should have to go through. We want to make sure he gets back his life and returns to school."
The 29-year-old son of lawful permanent residents, Jose suffers from mental retardation severe enough that he doesn‟t know his own age or birthday, and cannot tell time or dial phone numbers.
He has been held in various detention facilities around Southern California, including a jail in Santa Ana, since April 2005, despite a judge having closed his immigration case nearly five years ago after finding him mentally incompetent to understand the proceedings against him.
The government did not move to reopen his case until three months ago, and never gave Franco a bond hearing to determine whether he presented a danger that would have justified his prolonged detention, or whether his detention was even appropriate in light of his disability, according to the ACLU.
Two ACLU affiliates, Public Counsel in Los Angeles and the Casa Cornelia Law Center in San Diego filed lawsuits in U.S. Federal District Courts March 26 alleging due process rights, federal immigration statutes and federal discrimination laws designed to protect people with disabilities were violated when it came to the jailing of Franco and Guillermo Gomez Sanchez, who was being held in an immigration facility in San Bernardino.
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Sanchez, a 48-year-old who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, has now been released to his family as well.
"We are pleased that the government has agreed to release both of these detainees after years of unwarranted detention, but we remain concerned about the fate of many other detainees who remain 'lost' in the immigration prison system due to their mental disabilities," said Ahilan Arulanantham, director of immigrant rights and national security for the ACLU of Southern California.
An estimated 15 percent of all immigration detainees have a mental disability, but, unlike the criminal justice system, the immigration system has no standard procedures to resolve cases against detainees with mental disabilities who have been ruled incompetent to follow the proceedings against them.
"We hope the government will agree to conduct a prompt review to identify the other detainees with similar mental health issues, and determine through hearings whether release is appropriate for them as well," Arulanantham said. "Justice in such cases should not require that the detainee have the good fortune to be represented by public interest lawyers."