Mentally Ill Immigrants Likely To Get Lost In Detention System
August 01, 2011

Photo by Angela Carone
A sick inmate sleeps in a hospital unit at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, the largest medical prison facility in the state.

SAN DIEGO -- At first glance, José Suarez showed all the signs of someone destined for a life in and out of jail. After ending up homeless in his late 40s, he started using drugs, breaking into homes, stealing and resisting arrest.

His sister Maria Reyes worried about him during that time, in the early '90s.

“Since he wasn’t himself at the time, he committed many crimes," she said. "Once, they arrested him for carrying a knife — that’s how they got him for good last time.”

He wasn’t himself, according to Reyes, because he was having one of his psychotic episodes. During one arrest, Suarez lost his Green Card, and he couldn’t prove he was a permanent resident.

Thus began his long process for deportation. He was transferred from the jail in San Bernardino County to detention facilities around California. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and his sister struggled to get him regular treatment.

"If he doesn’t take his medicine, he loses control," said Reyes. "We asked the people in the detention center to give him his meds, but we realized there wasn’t much we could do to save him.”

Suarez remained in immigration detention for more than two years, at taxpayer expense, going through proceedings he didn’t understand. His treatment was spotty. He was unaware of his situation, away from family, and unable to defend himself.

This went on until San Diego immigration lawyer, Veronica Barba, learned of his case. With Barba’s help, with medication, and his sister’s support, José Suarez was able to fight off his deportation. He was released in May of this year.

But according to Barba, Suarez was especially lucky — more than half of all mentally ill immigrants in detention end up without a lawyer, and unable to represent themselves.

"There are so many cases in immigration court, that a lot of times the judge won’t notice that this is happening for months,” said Barba.

This was confirmed in a 2010 report by Human Rights Watch.

Mentally ill detainees are often in solitary confinement, sometimes for weeks or months. Their medical records don’t always transfer from one facility to another, and their treatment — or lack of it — can make their situation worse.

Barry Krisberg teaches Criminal Justice at the University of California, Berkeley. He pointed out that immigrants in detention are tried under civil laws, not criminal ones, so the laws guiding their treatment are different.

“What we’re looking at with respect to these deportation facilities is, they’re not really regulated except by the agency that runs them," said Krisberg. "I think what we’re going to see in the future is people fundamentally challenging this principle, that immigration laws are a civil proceeding.”

According to Krisberg, as more immigrants end up in detention, and for longer periods of time, the U.S. will need to create regulations that better protect the rights of people held in federal jails.

But even after immigrants find their way out of detention, they can get lost on the streets.

There are dozens of migrants each month being deported back into Tijuana who suffer from mental retardation, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, among other mental illnesses. Ana Maria Colorado is one of them. After being held in the U.S., she is now living at a women’s shelter in Tijuana. Her family is out of touch, unable to help her with her condition.

“They gave me some pills and I stayed in detention for about two weeks," said Colorado, struggling to remember the details of her arrest and deportation. "On top of the voices I heard in my head, being locked up made them worse. I was stuck in a small room and felt disoriented.”

Tijuana is already burdened by masses of "indigent people in our city," said Mary Galvan, the social worker at the shelter where Colorado is staying. "How can you help these people with mental illness? Where should they go? Who should be responsible for them and who will pay? It’s especially complicated if we’re dealing with migrants."

As recently as two decades ago, there was little mental health care available in detention centers or at shelters on either side of the border. There have been some improvements on that front, said Galvan, but not enough to deal with the increased numbers of deportees.

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