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International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Protecting Rights, Respecting Dignity

Dec 3, 2013
Bradley Jenkins

Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.  At CLINIC, we are ever mindful of the need to advocate for the protection of the most vulnerable immigrants.  Those who are detained face significant barriers to asserting their legal claims to remain in the United States.  People living with mental disabilities are doubly vulnerable and face an impossible task when the government seeks to expel them from the country.  Indeed, disabled immigrants often merit humanitarian protection precisely because of their heightened vulnerability, but may be unable to articulate their need for protection to the authorities.

Ten years ago, Blessed John Paul II issued this challenge: “The quality of life in a community is measured largely by its commitment to assist the weaker and needier members with respect for their dignity as men and women. The world of rights cannot only be the prerogative of the healthy. People with disabilities must also be enabled to participate in social life as far as they can, and helped to fulfill all their physical, psychological and spiritual potential. Only by recognizing the rights of its weakest members can a society claim to be founded on law and justice.”

One of the ways we respond to this challenge is to urge the government to implement safeguards for disabled immigrants that protect their rights and respect their dignity.  The Board of Immigration Appeals Pro Bono Project, administered by CLINIC, has been a leader in advocating for reform in this area through the immigration court system.  In 2011, the Project identified the case of a man who was ordered removed from the United States without access to a lawyer, despite his diagnosis of schizophrenia.  Indeed, during one of his hearings, this man asked to see a psychiatrist.  The Project worked with the University of Houston Law Center’s Immigration Clinic, which provided representation.  The result was the precedent-setting decision in Matter of M-A-M-, which, for the first time in the history of immigration law, set out a framework for assessing the mental competency of immigrants facing deportation and required that safeguards be implemented to protect the rights of immigrants who cannot sufficiently understand immigration proceedings.

Progress since M-A-M- has been encouraging.  In April, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security announced policy changes that, when fully implemented, will significantly improve the identification of detained immigrants with mental health needs and will provide more robust protections for this vulnerable population.  In June, the BIA Pro Bono Project obtained another precedent-setting victory before the Board of Immigration Appeals in Matter of E-S-I-, which clarified the additional procedures required when the government provides notice to a person with a mental disability that it is seeking his or her removal.  CLINIC is hopeful that these reforms will enhance the fairness of immigration proceedings nation-wide, and we will remain vigilant that the world of rights described by Blessed John Paul II always includes the vulnerable.

The Board of Immigration Appeals Pro Bono Project depends on the efforts of volunteer attorneys and generous donors to protect the rights of vulnerable immigrants.  If you are interested in serving as a pro bono attorney or donating to the Project, please contact Bradley Jenkins at bjenkins@cliniclegal.org.

*Bradley Jenkins is an attorney in CLINIC's Advocacy section and serves as the coordinator for the BIA Pro Bono Project.