August 20, 2019

Disability Rights in Contemporary Immigration Debates

[Cross-posted from ImmigrationProf Blog]

By Jasmine E. Harris

We cannot fully understand the treatment of immigrant detainees and the numerous lawsuits filed against ICE and the Trump Administration without attention to disability rights. Not only do these cases underscore the intersection of immigration and disability rights broadly, but, more concretely, they offer novel and underdeveloped remedial avenues rooted in disability law. Disability statutes, like the U.S. Constitution, apply to individuals in the United States irrespective of citizenship and immigration status.

Yesterday, a coalition of leading civil rights groups filed a nationwide class action in the Central District of California to challenge the systematic denial of constitutional and statutory rights of people with disabilities in immigrant detention centers. Abdallah Fraihat et al. v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement et al., No. 5:19-cv-01546 (C.D. Cal. Aug 19, 2019) (hereinafter, Fraihat Complaint). The putative plaintiffs are fifteen individuals detained at eight different facilities in six states, representing a putative class of approximately fifty-five thousand immigrants imprisoned by ICE daily, and two nonprofit organizations, Al Otro Lado and the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ICIJ). The Fraihat Complaint challenges the federal government’s failure to ensure detained immigrants at one-hundred fifty-eight detention facilities receive appropriate medical and mental health care, its alleged use of segregation in violation of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and its failure to ensure that detained immigrants with disabilities are provided legally-mandated accommodations and are not discriminated against as required by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  The Fraihat Complaint details dangerous conditions present in detention facilities that place detainees with medical and mental health disabilities in precarious situations. Examples include self-accommodating wheelchair users without assistive mobility devices being forced to rely on fellow detainees to carry them; and people denied access to medications to manage chronic illness, exacerbating current disabilities and generating new ones.

Fraihat builds on well-established substantive and procedural precedents in the prisoners’ rights context. First, the key theory of liability is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cannot avoid statutory and constitutional duties by contracting with third parties to manage and operate detention facilities. Although ICE directly operates only a handful of detention facilities, plaintiffs rely on familiar agency principles to hold ICE, the Department of Homeland Security, and institutional actors liable for their failure to monitor, investigate, and remedy alleged systematic violations at approximately one-hundred fifty-three facilities run by local sheriffs’ offices and private contractors.  Among those implicated, the GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly “Corrections Corporation of America”) are two repeat defendants in prison condition cases. The fact that ICE has failed to effectively monitor and oversee the daily management of these private contractors, and to take effective measures when it learns of problems in those centers under their care and control, is not news. Consider this recent report from California Department of Justice detailing the findings from an investigation of all ten detention facilities in the state. Xavier Becerra, Cal. Att’y Gen., Immigration Detention in California, Cal. Dep’t of Justice, at 61, 82, 123 (Feb. 2019) (finding highly-restrictive prison-like conditions including required uniforms, compulsory prison-wage labor, restrictions on access to counsel and receipt of medical and mental health care).  Nor is use of class remediation novel. Fraihat relies on Ninth Circuit precedent in an analogous prisoners’ rights case for the proposition that class certification is appropriate. The Ninth Circuit in Parsons v. Ryan , 754 F.3d 657 (9th Cir. 2014)., held that prisoners could proceed as a class to challenge Arizona’s policies and practices denying access to medical care, dental care, mental health care, and punitively employing isolation.

With respect to remedies, Plaintiffs seek injunctive and declaratory relief. They want Defendants to stop using segregation as a punitive weapon, to effectively monitor federal contractors acting as their agents, and to build institutional capacity to attend to the needs of those detained.  For example, the Fraihat Complaint alleges that ICE and DHS have no system of tracking detainees’ medical and mental health needs or requests for care and accommodations.  As a result, when detainees are transferred from one facility to another, they are forced to restart the process of requesting medical care or reasonable accommodations from the beginning, leading to major delays in receipt of urgent medical attention and disability accommodations.

Plaintiffs in Fraihat face an impossible choice: either languish in detention without medical and mental health care and risk exacerbation of disabilities (including death) or abandon their immigration cases. The Trump Administration’s aggressive enforcement and use of detention has flooded an already broken system that, unfortunately (and perhaps inconceivably), continues to be years behind failing prisons in terms of compliance with disability rights laws. 

The lawsuit was filed by Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC), Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP in the U.S District Court for the Central District of California. You can read the full Fraihat Complaint here.

Another recent example of disability rights at work in immigration debates is the Trump Administration’s amended “public charge” regulation, also the subject of California’s most recent lawsuit filed in federal court on August 16, 2019.  The new DHS regulation denies green cards to immigrants who use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance. While the rule may be problematic on its face, even if considered facially neutral, en arguendo, it will almost certainly have a disproportionate impact on immigrants with disabilities and their family members who are more likely to rely on Medicaid for health insurance. Before the DHS amendment, people with disabilities were considered “public charges” if they were likely to require institutional services such as long-term care. The expanded language in the rule may result in greater exclusion of people with disabilities and their families who rely on public insurance for the very supports necessary for them to access gainful employment and avoid economic dependency, such as personal home assistants or assistive technology.  Furthermore, other challenges to the Trump Administration’s immigration policies and practices, such as those pursuant to the settlement agreement in Flores v. Reno to challenge, among other policies, the Admiration’s separation of immigrant children at the U.S. border, while widely known, are filed within the immigration law cabinet without regard for the ways in which disability rights operate.  Flores, for example, requires that detained children be placed in “the least restrictive setting” in line with their age and other “special needs,” language that comes from the implementing regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (requiring that services be provided in the “most integrated setting” appropriate). 

Perhaps most promising for this disability legal scholar is the recognition of disability rights as part of a broader civil rights agenda. My hope is that activists, practitioners, and scholars recognize the utility of these coalitions and consistently engage disability rights theoretical and legal principles to redress our most pressing social justice offenses of the day.

April 7, 2016

Diversity and Disability

Last Thursday and Friday (March 31st and April 1st), I attended the 2016 Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium in Baltimore, Maryland. 


The conference at the National Federation of the Blind


Baltimore Harbor at night

This annual symposium, named in honor of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, brings together disability rights scholars and practitioners to discuss current disability law issues and impact litigation.  Dr. tenBroek served the public in many roles, for example, as a constitutional law scholar at UC Berkeley and a leader of the blind civil rights movement.  As a civil rights activist, Dr. tenBroek understood the importance of cross-movement coalitions to increase the political power of the disenfranchised.  He advocated for the "right to live in the world" for people with disabilities:

The right of access to public accommodations and common carriers is a civil right. It is a basic right indispensable to participation in the community, a substantive right to which all are fully and equally entitled.

Jacobus tenBroek, The Right to Live in the World: The Disabled in the Law of Torts, 54 CAL. L. REV. 841, 858 (1966).

Race is a little discussed topic in the disability rights movement despite its connection to some of the central issues of racial justice today.  For example, disability should be front and center in legal and policy discussions about prisoners' rights (approximately 24-37% of all people in prisons and jails in the U.S. self-report as people with disabilities and are disproportionately people of color).   

This year's symposium brought diversity to the forefront of the conversation.  "Diversity in the Disability Rights Movement: Working Together to Achieve the Right to Live in the World" raised difficult issues about race, gender, and sexual orientation.   I attended a breakout session on the intersection of trans rights and disability that was facilitated by Victoria M. Rodríguez-Roldán, Director, Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project, National LGBTQ Task Force.  A packed room of legal scholars and practitioners shared ideas on how the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act can be used to remedy discrimination against trans people with disabilities.  Claudia Center, Senior Staff Attorney in the Disability Rights section of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation discussed the applicability of the ADA to police arrests following the Supreme Court decision in City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, 135 S.Ct. 1765 (2015).  While the Court appears to have answered the question as to whether the ADA applies to police arrests (turning on whether police arrests constitute a "program or service" under Title II of the ADA), the question of what constitutes "reasonable accommodations" in the context of arrests remains unanswered. 


Judge Thompson addressing attendees at the luncheon

The highlight of the symposium for me - other than having a chance to exchange ideas with disability practitioners and scholars - was the keynote address by the Honorable Myron H. Thompson, U.S. District Judge, United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.  Judge Thompson, an African American federal judge with a disability (childhood polio), shared the role of race and disability in constructing identity.  He emphasized the power of internal stigma that comes from low expectations and invisibility and the therapeutic potential of community building and cross-movement pollination.  Judge Thomson reminded the conference participants of the legacy of Dr. tenBroek and called for greater educational opportunities for law students to understand that disability rights are civil and human rights.  He encouraged law schools to build a disability rights law curriculum and law professors to build connections across subject areas so that the next generation recognizes the interconnectivity of race, ethnicity, disability, class, gender, and sexual orientation.  

Judge Thompson was energized when he learned that UC Davis is among a small group of law schools offering disability rights courses taught by full time professors, supporting a student-led Disability Law Society, and regularly inviting practitioners and scholars to discuss disability rights. 

Two King Hall alumnae practicing disability law approached me after the lunch discussion to introduce themselves and applaud King Hall's commitment to disability rights.  I look forward to bringing them back to King Hall in the future to speak with students about careers in disability rights.

March 4, 2016

"Managing the Legal Beast" with the Student Wellness Committee

On March 3rd, the Student Wellness Committee (SWC) sponsored its first public panel entitled, "Managing the Legal Beast: Panel Discussion on Navigating Law School and the Legal Profession with your Mental Health Intact."  The primary goal of the panel was to open discussion about the challenges for mental health wellness that law students and attorneys face, and discuss how the King Hall community (faculty, staff, students) can address these challenges.  A secondary but equally important goal was to normalize mental health struggles and begin to open the dialogue on how common and shared these challenges are among lawyers and law students in particular.   

I was pleased to be part of a panel that discussed questions about mental health and its challenges from three perspectives: law students, law professors, and practitioners.  Also on the panel was Professor Katie Young, currently a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford, who described her current book project on the law school experience with a realistic view of the stressors of law school and how they exacerbate existing mental health challenges and may produce anxiety and depression for students who previously did not experience these conditions.  The second panelist, Pamela Cohen, an experienced staff attorney with Disability Rights California, the Protection and Advocacy organization for the state funded to represent the interests of people with disabilities, addressed the difficult questions of disclosure of mental disabilities, more specifically, when and if to disclose and why.  She called for students, faculty, and administrators to change the culture from within.

In my segement of the presentation, I focused on the much needed culture shift around individuality and autonomy as fundamental democratic values and how they work at cross purposes to de-stigmatizing mental disability.  Shared inter-dependency and relational autonomy is more reflective of how people interact and demystifies how people actually succeed in law school and in practice.  I also discussed the prevalence of depression and anxiety among the general population --e.g., 1 in 4 people will experience depression in their lifetime--and its higher prevalence among law students--e.g., approximately 1 in 3 law students.  I attributed the disproportionate numbers among law students to at least three factors. First, the changing economic climate that results in fewer available "dream jobs" for law students and the realization that the passion which brought them to law school may not translate into a job in that area (at least at first).  Second, we celebrate imbalance--that is, people who sacrifice self-care in law school and legal practice get celebrated as "hard workers" and "devoted, tireless advocates"--rather than emulating the person who strives to balance law school or legal practice with self-care (eating well, exercise, social support networks).  Third, and relatedly, students come to law school as complex individuals with diverse interests and hobbies and after a short time this rich, deep complexity is reduced to a singular identity--law student.  These three factors take a toll on the person emotionally, physically, and psychologically.  

I also talked about how faculty can help identify law students in need of additional support and begin to shift the culture of silent suffering and stigma attached to mental disabilities.  For example, class attendance can be used as a way to check in on students' learning and also their mental health.  Students who are on call in larger classes and fail to attend class may potentially signal that they need additional support or assistance.  It's a good idea to reach out to these students personally and offer support and an open door.  Also, mental health challenges may be a sign or result of academic difficulties.  With that in mind, it can be useful to design courses to include formative assessments and periodic substantive checks to get a sense of where the class stands.  It's also important to pay attention to students' body language and facial expressions which may signal not only confusion with the materials but general lack of energy, motivation, sometimes associated with depression. Included in my presentation was a quote from Justice Louis Brandeis that I think is particularly apt for law students: "If you would only recognize that life is hard, things would be so much easier for you."

Approximately 30 law students attended the panel with strong support from the Dean's Office.  In attendance were Senior Associate Dean Madhavi Sunder and Senior Associate Dean Hollis Kulwin. I shared a note of support from Dean Kevin Johnson, who could not attend because of another commitment outside of the law school.  

 

 

October 2, 2015

LatCrit 2015 Twentieth Anniversary Conference: Critical Constitutionalism


Me with King Hall's Prof. Angela Harris and Prof. Rhonda Magee of the University of San Francisco

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of LatCrit (short for Latina and Latino Critical Legal Theory), part of the Critical Legal Studies tradition.  The theme for this year, "Critical Constitutionalism" provides an occasion for reflection and prospective planning.  I had the good fortune of moderating a powerful panel on "Mindfulness and Constitutionalism" with our very own Professor Angela Harris.  Joined by Professor Rhonda Magee of the University of San Francisco, Professors Harris and Magee opened the session with an example of mindfulness practice.  Professor Magee invited participants in the session to take a few minutes to take stock of our mental and physical states and to sit with our thoughts for a "quiet" minute.  She challenged us to consider what we teach and why to discover how mindfulness can ground us and reveal new ways of culturally evaluating constitutional democracy. The speakers urged us to incorporate mindfulness into teaching, scholarship, and the practice of law.

Professor Harris noted that mindfulness can give meaning to the Constitution, most notably, those famous three words of the preamble: "We the People."  She suggested that mindfulness unlocks possibilities for community-building and coalition formation based on recognition of our shared humanity.  She identified as problematic the "master stories" of how we become a nation, that is, those that call for "oneness" through the elimination (or masking) of differences.  Such narratives exclude those unwilling or unable to assimilate, hide, or reject those aspects of their identities that deviate from the master stories.  In turn, counter-narratives adopt "struggle" and "resistance," rather than connection, as central metaphors.  Yet understanding connection and respecting differences is possible through mindfulness.  The group then discussed the pedagogical possibilities for incorporating mindfulness into teaching.   Professors can create a shared experience of connection in the classroom where students can bring their whole selves to the analysis and application of the law.  It can be as simple as taking the first five minutes of class to sit in silence and encourage the students to identify the physical and mental state they bring to class.  Through modeling and intentional curricular design, we teach students that their diverse life experiences matter and can enhance not only their understanding of the law but expose and contest normative assumptions of "oneness" that underwrite substantive law.  

Not surprisingly, this session went over time as participants shared their reactions to the presentation as well as personal and pedagogical insights on mindfulness.  One participant noted the presence of law school courses on mindfulness signals its importance to students, the academy, and the profession.  Thanks to Professor Harris, King Hall has just such a course: "Mindfulness and Professional Identity: Becoming a Lawyer While Keeping Your Values Intact."  

I look forward to my panel tomorrow morning on "Courts and Politics" where I will discuss my current project "Sexual Citizenship, Disability, and the Dignity of Risk."