And despite the fact that an immigration judge closed Franco-Gonzalez’s removal proceedings in 2005, Franco-Gonzalez remained in detention until 2010, until a lawyer filed a habeas petition demanding his release. Franco-Gonzalez lost five years of his life because our government refuses to provide basic legal rights to individuals who are just not mentally capable of representing themselves.
If you are distressed by this tragedy, you are not alone. Wood clearly gets it. But, sadly, the current administration has shown little actual desire to solve the problem.
And lest you think I’m just a “government should just pay” advocate, the actual economics here are startling and compelling. Let’s again take Franco-Gonzalez’s case, in which he was detained for nearly five years. Government estimates of the per-day cost for immigrant detainees are $94 to $150. If we take an average per-day cost of $125, the government spent well over $200,000 to keep a mentally disabled immigrant with an IQ of 33-55 in custody for five years.
The moment that a lawyer got involved and sought redress, our government finally (but reluctantly) acted. Franco-Gonzalez is now released. Others, however, are not as lucky, and we continue to fight to require the government to provide representation to these immigrants with mental disabilities.
But waiting for cases to truly become so egregious to have to run into court is not humane, is not good policy and makes no fiscal sense. If the government pocketed the amount that it spent keeping Franco-Gonzalez in detention, it could pay a lawyer for about four years (a public defender in Los Angeles gets paid roughly $50,000 a year), and a full-time lawyer could certainly represent dozens of immigrants over that course of time. In the words of the president in another context, it’s “just math.”
Between the tragedy of it all, the numbers, the bipartisan support, the administrative inaction and the public outcry for an immigration overhaul, now is the time for Congress to act to ensure representation for detained immigrants who suffer from serious mental illnesses. Politics is one thing, but basic human compassion is another. Providing representation is just the right thing to do.
Michael H. Steinberg is a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP in Los Angeles.
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