2 mentally disabled detainees freed in San Diego - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

2 mentally disabled detainees freed in San Diego

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This image provided by the American Civil Liberties Union shows Jose Antonio Franco-Gonzalez after his release from an immigration detention facility near San Diego on Wednesday, March 31, 2010. This image provided by the American Civil Liberties Union shows Jose Antonio Franco-Gonzalez after his release from an immigration detention facility near San Diego on Wednesday, March 31, 2010.

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Two immigrants were freed Wednesday from federal detention centers, years after judges put their cases on hold due to serious questions about their mental competence.

Attorneys who filed petitions for the release of Guillermo Gomez Sanchez, 48, and Jose Antonio Franco Gonzalez, 29, said the cases exposed a "black hole" that allows authorities to hold mentally ill immigrants for years without having to explain themselves to a judge or anyone else.

The attorneys suspected many other mentally ill detainees were being held under similar circumstances.

"There are no safeguards," said Judy London of Public Counsel, a nonprofit group that sought Franco's release along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "These cases are put on indefinite hold, and you have no accounting."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a one-sentence statement on its decision to release the detainees from San Diego's Otay Mesa detention center.

"After a review of their custody status, medical conditions and assurances from their families, we believe their release from ICE custody is appropriate," it read.

Agency spokeswoman Lauren Mack declined to elaborate, citing pending litigation.

An immigration judge put Gomez's case on hold in January 2006 and ordered ICE to evaluate his mental competence, according to a legal petition filed in federal court in San Diego by the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties and the Casa Cornelia Law Center.

ICE didn't evaluate Gomez until February 2007 and didn't put his case back on the court docket until June 2008, the petition said.

In 2009, a judge ordered him released on a $5,000 bond, ruling he was not a flight risk or a danger to the community. However, government attorneys challenged the order.

Gomez, a legal resident from Mexico, had several brushes with the law, including a conviction in 2004 for assault with a deadly weapon that prompted the deportation proceedings.

An immigration judge put Franco's case on hold in June 2005, citing mental incompetence. The ACLU said he has the mental age of a child, doesn't know his age or birthday, has trouble counting and cannot tell time.

The government didn't put Franco's case back on the docket until December 2009, according to the petition. Franco, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, served one year in jail for assault with a deadly weapon after authorities alleged he threw a rock during a fight between two rival gangs in 2004.

The cases highlight the need to protect detainees whose mental illnesses prevent them from advocating for themselves, said Ahilan Arulanantham, director of immigrant rights and national security for the ACLU of Southern California. He urged ICE to conduct a review to determine if other mentally ill detainees have also been locked up for years while their cases are on hold.

"There's no continuance, there's not a motion, there's nothing, it just stops," he said. "The reason why that's happening is there are no procedures."

Gomez will stay with family in San Bernardino, east of Los Angeles. Franco was released to family in Costa Mesa.

Ruben Franco, 38, said his younger brother was enjoying a home-cooked meal and watching music videos at home Wednesday. He said the family didn't hire a lawyer for years because they were unsure they would succeed.

The attorneys who filed the petition last week didn't begin to work on the case until a few months ago, Ruben Franco said. They worked for free.

"We didn't know what was going on, just that they wouldn't release him," he said.

It is unknown how many of the approximately 30,000 federal immigration detainees nationwide have mental illnesses because ICE doesn't track that figure, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice has said.

However, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a series of proposed reforms last year that included devising a medical classification system for detainees with unique medical or mental health needs.


Jablon reported from Los Angeles.


Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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