José Antonio Franco González is 33 years old, but he doesn’t know that.  He also can’t tell time or remember telephone numbers.  Yet when threatened with deportation, he had to defend himself entirely on his own.

Jose Antonio Franco Gonzalez
Photo from ACLU of Southern California

         After a psychiatrist said Franco had no understanding of the proceedings, a judge dismissed the case.  But Franco remained trapped in detention – for a total of five years – because he had no lawyer to represent him.

         U.S. immigration authorities have long maintained that, unlike criminal defendants, indigent immigrants have no right to a lawyer paid for by the government.  Not even if they are severely mentally disabled.  So Mr. Franco was trapped until an attorney for Public Counsel, a public interest law firm in Los Angeles, stumbled across the case and stepped in to represent Mr. Franco.

Mr. Franco became the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit brought by Public Counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants’ Rights Project and other groups.

Last week, a federal district court judge said that such abuses of immigrants’ rights must end.  Judge Dolly Gee ordered immigration courts in three states to provide lawyers for indigent immigrants with mental disabilities who are facing deportation, and to give them bail hearings after six months of detention.  The Justice Department is voluntarily extending the first part of the ruling nationwide.

The immigration bill now before the Senate would extend these rights to unaccompanied children as well.  (Yes, right now, indigent children must defend themselves in immigration court.)

Judge Dolly Gee

Judge Gee almost didn’t make it onto the bench.  President Clinton nominated her in 1999, but the Senate Judiciary Committee, then controlled by Republicans, refused to give her a hearing before Clinton’s term ended.  President Obama nominated her again in 2009, and Dolly Gee became the first Chinese-American woman to be named a federal district court judge. Far from being a controversial nominee, Judge Gee was confirmed by unanimous consent in the Senate.

Her decision last week is one more illustration of why it’s so important to find the right judge for every federal court vacancy and fight Republican stalling tactics.  The decision also illustrates something else: the need to fight ongoing efforts to curb the rights of Americans to band together as a class to stand up for their rights in court.

The American Constitution Society also has a post about this case.

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