Our Voices

Dispatches from Detention: Detaining the Mentally Incompetent

Dispatches from Detention shares stories of people encountered by RFK Human Rights attorneys in legal outreach trips to the country’s most isolated immigration detention centers. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

South Louisiana Immigrations and Customs (ICE) Processing Center, Basile, Louisiana

February 2024

Camila, a Black woman in her 50s, sat alone in the corner of the room. A large, hardened lump protruded from her head, where she had been hit. She was surrounded by scraps of paper with drawings she had made, one with an American flag and the words “Merry Christmas.” Camila had no understanding of where she was or what immigration removal proceedings were.

For the past three weeks, Camila had been awaiting deportation to Brazil at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, a women’s-only detention center operated by the for-profit prison company GEO Group. She had originally come to the United States fleeing domestic violence that threatened her life.

While detained, Camila had attended a brief hearing with an immigration judge, who quickly ordered her removed. Isolated from legal assistance while held in a rural detention center, Camila was one of the 70% of detained immigrants who face removal proceedings without a lawyer.

When RFK Human Rights attorneys met with Camila following a legal rights presentation, she showed clear signs of mental distress and delusion. She wept continuously. When asked basic questions about her removal proceedings, she could only answer, “I didn’t do anything” and “I’m a good person.” She said she had been chained on a bus by officials who were conspiring against her. And she thanked attorneys for being “the only people to listen to me in here.”

By law, people like Camila who lack a rational and factual understanding of immigration proceedings are deemed incompetent to proceed unless provided safeguards to protect their rights. Immigration judges must appoint them attorneys and can close their removal cases. ICE must also make reasonable accommodations for their disabilities, including release from detention to seek medical and mental health treatment.

But Camila hadn’t received any of these protections. ICE officials had exacerbated her mental distress by housing her in a dorm with Spanish speakers, though she only spoke Portuguese. When she asked detention guards to speak to a psychiatrist, they simply told her in English to calm down. As the weeks passed in near-total social isolation, Camila had grown desperate.

Ultimately, RFK Human Rights attorneys managed to convince ICE that serious legal deficiencies had occurred in Camila’s case, citing her lack of understanding of her current situation, a history of abuse, and questions about her mental competency. She was later released from detention.