Is There a Right to Counsel? Class Action Suit Represents Detainees with Mental Disabilities

Detainees pass the time in one of the pods of the Northwest Detention Center's 1575-bed facility as they wait for a decision on their cases.
Dean J. Koepfler/The News Tribune

The legal decisions facing detained immigrants trying to represent themselves in immigration court are intimidating enough. For those with mental disabilities, they can be incomprehensible.

But a recent federal court decision could lead to a legal precedent that would give immigrants with mental impairments the right to a court-appointed attorney.

Currently, immigrants have no right to court-appointed legal representation for immigration proceedings.

“People with severe mental disabilities who are locked up in immigration detention are ground through this system without even understanding what is happening to them,” said Matt Adams, legal director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. NWIRP has taken up the cause on behalf of a severely schizophrenic man from the Ukraine, who was held at the Northwest Detention Center on Tacoma’s Tideflats for more than two years – from April 15, 2010, until June 22, 2012.

This is in stark contrast to the American criminal justice system, which gives defendants the right to court-appointed counsel, and also has a formal system for determining whether a defendant is mentally competent to understand charges and stand trial.


The High Cost of Technicalities

Children dressed up for a visit with family members detained in the Northwest Detention Center pass by immigration activists at a recent protest in front of the facility.
Dean J. Koepfler/The News Tribune

Young love, and a near-fatal car accident brought Ana Maria Gutierrez to the United States nearly half her life time ago. 

Now she faces a collision of another kind – between immigration policies and her hopes for the future of her family, which includes six children, all American citizens.

Ana Maria, was only 15 when she first noticed the young man visiting at church in Tamastian, a tiny village in Jalisco, Mexico.

“He had really long eyelashes,” she said through a translator. She blushes. “I noticed that right away.”

The young man was Alvaro Gutierrez, a U.S. resident who had been visiting family in the village. Alvaro had been a lawful permanent resident of the United States since the age of four.

The two fell in love. A few years later, he proposed to her in the plaza of the same town. She was 19. They married in a civil ceremony, and 10 months later held a church wedding. After each, though, she stayed behind in Mexico while he returned to the United States.

In 1997, just after the civil wedding, she did make one attempt to unite with her husband. But her timing was bad. That was also the year provisions of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Act had gone into effect – new rules that included stepped up enforcement at the borders.

She got caught at the border and ordered deported. Prior to that, more relaxed security had allowed many immigrants to come and go across the border with fewer stops. Even those who were caught, were often turned back without an actual deportation order.


How We Reported on the Northwest Detention Center

"Center of Detention" reflects reporting conducted in parts of 2010, 2011 and 2012 during a first-of-its kind reporting partnership for The News Tribune with an independent journalism nonprofit.

TNT reporter Lewis Kamb teamed with reporter Carol Smith of Seattle-based InvestigateWest, to interview more than 75 people, attend various hearings and review more than 20,000 pages of records. TNT photographer Dean Koepfler chronicled some of the interviews and other events to capture the special report's visual elements.

Sources for the stories included various undocumented immigrants and their family members; private and government attorneys; city and county police officials; city fire officials; county jail officials; municipal bond experts; various city, county, state and federal government officials; academics and activists.

The reporters conducted interviews of some immigrants while they were in local or federal custody. When needed, reporters used the services of a volunteer Spanish-language interpreter.

Records obtained and reviewed include paper documents, audio files and video records. Such records, if not otherwise publicly available, were obtained directly from private individuals or in response to state and federal public records requests.

Read the Documents



Fifteen Minutes in Immigration Court

Portraits of President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder hang in a waiting room where families of illegal immigrants wait as their loved ones attend hearings in two immigration courtrooms.
Dean J. Koepfler/The News Tribune

A narrow passageway separates the interior of the sprawling Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma from a trio of small federal courtrooms where the fate of the majority of men and women in the center will be decided. It is a courtroom of first appearances and, for many, last hopes.

The hallway, just off the one they call the “gray mile,” is short by design. It expedites getting people from detention into the court system that, while sagging under sheer numbers of cases, is still set up to speed them out of the country.

Speed matters from a cost-saving standpoint: Immigrants are detained at taxpayer expense.

The Tacoma court, operated by the U.S. Dept. of Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review, is one of 59 immigration courts nationwide that are handling record numbers of deportation cases. It has two full-time judges and last year handled a total of 11,249 hearings. Many detainees have multiple hearings before they are ordered deported, released on bond, or their cases dismissed.

On a typical morning, the docket is already packed with 40 cases. In Judge Theresa Scala’s courtroom, men – most appearing to be in their 20s and 30s – fill the half-dozen pew-like benches. Each man wears a uniform that signifies his criminal history or threat: Blue if no criminal history, or only minor charges or convictions; orange for mid-level offenses, such as drug-related crimes; red for those with assault charges or convictions. Women, who make up only about 10 percent of the detention center population, wear yellow. On this day, the courtroom is a sea of mostly navy blue.


Fleeing El Salvador for Tacoma

Cruz Velasquez served a 60-day sentence for a DUI conviction in the Pierce County Jail in 2011. Held on a immigration detainer, he feared he might be deported.
Dean J. Koepfler/The News Tribune

He came to America for a better life, to flee the fallout of a bloody civil war and the gang violence that now infests his native El Salvador.

For more than 15 years, Cruz Velasquez says he had found that life here – in Tacoma, in America.

He found it in a job as a window installer that, by U.S. standards, pays near poverty levels but earns him more money than he’s ever made.

He found it in Juana, a fellow illegal immigrant who bore him a daughter and a son – both American citizens, each delivered in good health at St. Joseph Medical Center.

And he found it in the home all of them now share: a modest rambler with a big tree in the front yard in South Tacoma.

But last summer as he awaited the end of a two-month term in the Pierce County Jail for driving under the influence – and the arrival of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to escort him to a privately operated detention center on Tacoma’s Tideflats – Velasquez knew the life he built here could vanish.

“If it happens, if I get deported, I wouldn’t want my children to go,” Velazquez said through a translator last August. “In El Salvador, there is trouble with gangs and just violence in general. I would prefer my children stay in the United States.”

Velasquez wasn’t giving up his family just yet.


A Drunk Driving Charge Leads to Deportation

With their hands and feet shackled, detained immigrants board a bus to Boeing Field for a deportation flight to Mexico in early August. 
Dean J. Koepfler/The News Tribune

Asael Lopez Carrada never saw combat during his time in the Mexican Army, but he described one of his final assignments as potentially just as deadly.

Dispatched high in the jagged mountains outside Chilpancingo, the capital city of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, Carrada and his brothers-in-arms spent more than half a year in the early 2000s fighting on the front lines of his nation’s drug war.

“As soldiers, our job was to destroy the mafia’s illicit crops, like marijuana and poppies,” the 31-year-old said last year through a translator.

For Carrada, the work amounted to simply carrying out orders. But to the insidious drug cartels of southern Mexico, he became the face of the enemy.

“The (drug traffickers) recognized me because I was there for a while,” Carrada said. “When the operation concluded and they brought us back to Chilpancingo, people knew who I was. Twice, they followed me.”

For the better part of three decades, the drug lords of the opium-rich state have exacted a reign of terror across Guerrero. They’ve opened fire on entire police squadrons, forcibly seized government offices and gunned down public officials in broad daylight. And in recent years, Guerrero’s drug mob increasingly has targeted Mexican soldiers. The cartels have been known to pluck uniformed soldiers off Chilpancingo’s streets, dumping their decapitated corpses and body parts in public areas days later.

When his Army stint ended in 2001, Carrada opted to retire and fled to America.

“I met someone who said things would be better here; that I would be able to find a job and also be more at ease, because I felt very unsafe,” he said.


Agriculture is nation's biggest water polluter but usually goes unpunished

Eight times in seven years, a state inspector asked Joe Lemire to keep his cattle off the banks of Pataha Creek. Why? Because they drop cow pies in the water. Cows trample pollution-filtering streamside plants. Cows mash the banks down so dirt gets into the stream, which had been targeted for cleanup by the government since the early 1990s.

The state even offered to pay for fences to keep the cows out of the stream.

But Lemire refused. He fired back that the state couldn’t prove  his cows were polluting the stream, which cuts an undulating path deep into the volcanic plains of southeast Washington. When the state issued him a formal order in 2009 to keep the cows away from the creek, Lemire appealed to a state pollution-hearings board.

This fall his case heads to the Washington Supreme Court in what is shaping up as a pivotal decision about farmers’ obligations to protect Northwest waterways. In a related struggle, Indian tribes are charging that farmers such as Lemire are killing salmon.

Lemire is a 69-year-old retiree raising cattle and hay. He’s become a cause célèbre in the countryside, where farm bureaus are soliciting residents to send money to cover the costs of his legal fight.

“I was guilty until proven innocent,” Lemire said in an interview. “It makes it mandatory for me what’s voluntary for other people.”