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How the Issue of Competence Affects an Immigration Proceeding

In criminal proceedings in which a person is charged with a crime, the prosecution cannot go on if a person is found to be incompetent or suffering from a mental illness. This is usually done in order to protect the defendant and ensure that the person is afforded constitutional due process rights. In immigration proceedings, a person’s incompetence due to a mental illness or condition can affect a person’s removal or deportation, but not in the same way as in a criminal trial.

In a deportation hearing, the person to be deported is presumed to be competent for purposes of the proceedings. However, if there is an indication that the person is not competent, for example because the person shows signs of mental illness, then the immigration judge has to make a determination of the person’s competency before the proceedings can go on.

A person who is able to communicate with his or her attorney and rationally understand the deportation proceeding is generally deemed to be competent, and the immigration proceedings can proceed without a legal challenge.

Once the judge makes a determination that a person who is facing deportation is not competent, the deportation proceedings do not stop as a criminal case would if the judge found a defendant incompetent to stand trial. The immigration judge is supposed to ensure that certain safeguards are in place, and then the removal proceedings can go on.

Some of the safeguards include ensuring that the person facing deportation is assisted by another person in presenting his or her case, not accepting admissions or other incriminating confessions from the person, and closing the hearing to the public. These safeguards do not truly address the issue of the person’s incompetence, and are therefore inadequate to offer real protections for a person suffering from mental illness and facing deportation.

Immigration judges make determinations of whether or not someone is incompetent by reviewing the evidence provided by the person facing deportation, as well as by the government. Neither the government nor the person facing deportation has a formal burden to provide the evidence upon which the judge relies. The judge also reviews all the evidence under a standard of proof that is lower than that required in a criminal case. This means that the person facing deportation cannot rely on the fact that the government has not produced evidence of competency to prove incompetency.

A person can prove that he or she has a mental illness that makes that person incompetent for purposes of the proceeding by calling witnesses to testify on his or her behalf, or by introducing medical records and evaluation reports that support the claims. If there is a long history of treatment and an indication that the treatment should be ongoing, it is likely that the immigration judge may find the person incompetent for purposes of the immigration proceeding.

Contact an Experienced Immigration Attorney

Having an attorney during an immigration proceeding is extremely important, especially for someone who cannot truly represent himself or herself due to mental illness. For more information on how a person’s mental illness can affect him or her during deportation proceedings, you should contact our multi-lingual staff to speak to an experienced immigration attorney from Strassburg, Gilmore & Wei, LLP, in Pasadena, California.


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