Released 01 April 2009  By Sandra Hernandez - LA Daily Journal
Mentally Ill Detainees Held Without Contact
County Health Officials Say Ice Instructed Psychiatric Hospitals To Break State Law
Sandra Hernandez - LA Daily Journal
Federal immigration officials have held mentally ill immigrant detainees in a little known network of private psychiatric hospitals in Southern California beyond the reach of their families and lawyers in apparent violation of state law, the Daily Journal has learned.
At least two of those detained were permanent residents of the U.S. The men, who were facing deportation charges after serving time for convictions, allege they were taken by federal authorities to hospitals for psychiatric care, and not allowed to make phone calls or contact anyone about their whereabouts.
The practice violates California law, which requires private psychiatric facilities to allow all patients to make telephone calls, receive visitors and notify relatives of their hospitalization, according to Los Angeles County health officials.
One of the hospitals implicated in the practice, BHC Alhambra Hospital in Rosemead, was under contract with the federal government to treat mentally ill immigration detainees. The hospital received a notice from a Los Angeles County health official last month warning that what it was doing was illegal.
The hospital "is currently denying legally mandated rights to mental health patients that are being treated in your facility and are in custody of (U.S.) Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office," Ellen Satkin, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health's patients rights director, wrote BHC administrators. County officials said they have received complaints from patients at other contracted hospitals, but would not say from whom or how widespread the practice is.
The alleged practice is alarming, immigrant advocates say, because it essentially allows ICE to hold mentally ill immigrants in private hospitals without due process and out of the reach of attorneys. These private hospitals are not listed among federal detention facilities where immigrants might be held, making it impossible for anyone to locate them.
"I have never heard of immigration officials detaining individuals in private facilities for mental health reasons," said Charles Kuck, president of the Washington D.C. based American Immigration Lawyers Association.
At the center of the allegations is a memo sent by Ruben Vela, assistant field office director for ICE, to BHC last July. The memo instructed hospital staff that "individuals in ICE custody may not use the phone or have conversations with members of the public without prior approval."
ICE officials confirmed the agency contracts with five California private psychiatric hospitals to treat mentally ill patients under its custody, but would not list them. The Daily Journal has identified four of them through interviews with patients, their attorneys and county health officials. The hospitals are BHC Alhambra, College Hospital Cerritos, College Hospital Costa Mesa and Alvarado Parkway Institute in La Mesa. The hospitals declined comment when contacted by the Daily Journal.
Lori K. Haley, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency, said the contracted hospitals "must comply with all applicable local, state, and federal regulations concerning the care and treatment of individuals with mental health issues," but did not respond to subsequent requests for more information or an explanation for assistant field office director Vela's memo.
County health officials said they began investigating complaints that mentally ill immigrants were being held incommunicado last year. Hospitals that deny patients access to communication could lose their designation by the county as a facility that is allowed to treat involuntarily committed mental patients.
College Hospital Cerritos also ran afoul of county officials when complaints surfaced there. The hospital stopped the practice a year ago, according to a letter to the county by Richard Louis III, the hospitals' vice president.
"We were denying these clients phone and visiting [rights]," Louis said in the letter.
Omar Solis, a green card holder, said he was involuntarily committed and held incommunicado at College Hospital Cerritos and its sister campus College Hospital Costa Mesa for five weeks in 2007.
"Basically, I was told that no one was supposed to know I was there," said Solis, 41.
Solis, who has bipolar disorder, was facing deportation charges at the time for a probation violation. Permanent legal residents may be expelled from the country for some criminal convictions. Solis was originally convicted of burglary and assault with a deadly weapon.
He said that during his hospitalization, the medical staff provided him with a list of California's "patients rights."
"I remember signing the patients rights," Solis said, but an immigration agent "told me they didn't apply to me. He said I was in custody, like a prisoner, and that wasn't a jail facility; therefore, they needed to exercise certain security measures."
Among the forms Solis signed was a "notification of patients admission," a legal form requiring the hospital to ask patients if they want a relative notified of their location, his medical records show. Solis said he signed a blank form, and someone else filled it out, writing that Solis wanted no contact from relatives, according to his medical records.
"I never told anyone that," Solis said. "I was very outspoken in voicing my desire to talk to my family. I was constantly telling people I wanted to call my family."
Like Solis, J. Roberto Sepulveda, 33, another green card holder, said he was sent to BHC Alhambra and held incommunicado for a month in 2008.
Both Sepulveda and Solis say they were processed for deportation proceedings in a downtown Los Angeles federal building, in a basement area known as B-18. They were briefly examined, the men said, and transferred to the private psychiatric hospitals.
Sepulveda, who suffers from schizophrenia and has a domestic violence conviction, said hospital staff and security officers "wouldn't let me use the phone, or call anyone. Everyone else at the hospital was allowed to use the phone, but I wasn't allowed to call or write."
Sepulveda's family was not provided information despite repeated calls to immigration officials in Los Angeles, his relatives said. Sepulveda was ordered deported to Mexico earlier this month.
Greg Pleasants, an Equal Justice Fellow and attorney with Mental Health Advocacy Services Inc. in Los Angeles, took on Solis' case. He said the men's ordeals underscore that few safeguards are in place to protect mentally ill immigrants in detention.
"It's a terrible legal fiction," said Pleasants, who also represents another mentally ill immigrant he said "languished in private facilities for nearly two years."
"His mother didn't know where he was for nearly one year," Pleasants said.
On any given day, an estimated 33,000 immigrants are detained in a network of facilities, including local jails, privately operated facilities and federal detention centers, according to ICE. About 600 are mentally ill.
It is unknown how many immigrants are held in private mental hospitals while they are contesting deportation orders.
ICE's edict for private hospitals stands in sharp contrast to its detention standards within their own facilities that require immigrants be allowed access to telephone, visitors, mail and a legal library. Neither Solis nor Sepulveda had an attorney during their hospitalization, they said.
Unlike criminal defendants who are provided public defenders, detained immigrants facing deportation are not entitled to a court appointed attorney, even in cases of mental illness.
Both men said they repeatedly complained about being barred from any outside communication.
"I asked the doctor why I couldn't use the phone," Solis said. "I was very vocal about it, but he said, 'You know, there's nothing I can do about that.'"
Solis said he grew more anxious during his hospitalization.
"I felt really desperate," he said. "It was an added stress on top of my depression and bipolar. Not knowing what was going to happen was really hard."
Solis' mother said she spent weeks searching for her son. She called immigration officials at several Los Angeles offices, including an information hot line, but her son was not in the system.
"They wouldn't tell me anything," said Berta Solis, a naturalized U.S. citizen. "They would say... we can't give you information. We can't let you know anything.'"
Solis said he finally was able to contact his mother with the help of another Cerritos hospital patient who was not in immigration custody.
Afterward, Berta Solis said she tried to visit her son without success.
"The [hospital] supervisors came out and said, 'We can't give you information. It's impossible for you to see him,'" she said.
Solis said he was never told of his mothers visit. Shortly after her visit, he was moved to College Hospital Costa Mesa. Nearly three weeks later, he was transferred to a San Diego immigration detention center, where he was finally able to call his family. That's when Pleasants took over his case. Solis has won the right to remain in the U.S.