Jose Antonio Franco-Gonzalez, a 29-year-old Mexican citizen with the cognitive level of a 2-year-old, spent nearly five years locked in California detention facilities after his immigration case was closed because he was unrepresented and mentally incompetent.
As many as 19,000 immigration detainees reportedly suffer from serious mental illnesses and combat-related disabilities. Many of them face the same Kafkaesque predicament: Indigent and incompetent, they are unable to hire counsel and so are left to languish in detention centers without essential medications or deported through an immigration process they cannot comprehend.
Their cause has now been taken up by a phalanx of legal groups, led by the ACLU of Southern California, Mental Health Advocacy Services, and Public Counsel. And Michael H. Steinberg, a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, estimates he has put in several hundred pro bono hours since becoming involved in the case in early 2010. He lobbied to amend Franco-Gonzalez's original complaint to make it the first class action on behalf of immigrant detainees with severe disabilities, hoping to right what Steinberg calls the systemic wrong of denying them the right to counsel. (See Franco-Gonzalez v. Holder
, No. 10-CV-02211 (C.D. Cal.).)
"What got me about this case was that it involves the most vulnerable population we have - individuals who are having trouble understanding the world in the best of circumstances," says Steinberg, whose usual legal terrain is business litigation. "And here they are in the worst of circumstances, with no one to help them."