AILA Presents the Franco-Gonzalez Litigation Team with the Jack Wasserman Memorial Award

Saturday, June 21, 2014

George Tzamaras
Belle Woods


BOSTON,MA — The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) will award the Franco-Gonzalez Litigation Team with the Jack Wasserman Memorial Award for excellence in litigation in business immigration. They will receive the award today during AILA's Annual Conference in Boston, MA.

The team includes:

  • Matt Adams, Northwest Immigrants' Rights Project
  • Ahilan Arulanantham, ACLU of Southern California/Immigrants' Rights Project
  • Esha Bhandari, ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project
  • Carmen Iguina, ACLU of Southern California
  • Talia Inlender, Public Counsel
  • Sarah Mehta, ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project
  • Marisol Orihuela, ACLU of Southern California
  • James Preis, Mental Health Advocacy Services
  • Sean Riordan, ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties
  • Jennifer Stark, ACLU of Southern California
  • Michael Steinberg and the Sullivan & Cromwell Franco team

In their ground-breaking victory, the Franco-Gonzalez plaintiffs and their litigation team obtained a court ruling recognizing the right to appointed legal representation for a class of individuals forced to appear pro se in immigration court.

In March 2010, the ACLU of Southern California filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Jose Antonio Franco-Gonzalez, an unrepresented Mexican citizen with a cognitive disability who had been in immigration detention for more than five years. The next year, a California district court granted a motion for class certification on behalf of Mr. Franco-Gonzalez and other detained unrepresented individuals with serious mental disorders in removal proceedings in California, Arizona, and Washington. The litigation team for Franco-Gonzalez v. Holder, No. 10-02211, sought competency evaluations, custody hearings, and appointed counsel on behalf of class members.

In April 2013, District Court Judge Dolly M. Gee partially granted the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and ordered permanent injunctive relief. The court required the government to provide legal representation for class members who were not then represented and to provide custody redetermination hearings for those who had been detained for more than six months. The decision was the first to recognize a right to appointed legal representation for a group of individuals in removal proceedings.

The court found that legal representation for detained individuals with serious mental disorders is required by § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794, a statute prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities. The appointment of "qualified representatives" is an accommodation to class members that will allow them to meaningfully participate in removal proceedings, as required by the Immigration and Nationality Act. According to the court, the provision of qualified representatives "is just as reasonable as and no more burdensome than Executive Office of Immigration Review's requirement that interpreters be provided to those who cannot understand English."

The Franco-Gonzalez litigation team already has had an impact on agency policy. Just prior to the decision (and in anticipation of the favorable ruling for the plaintiffs), the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security announced that they would issue nationwide policies providing protections for individuals with serious mental disorders, including "procedures that will make available qualified representatives to detainees who are deemed mentally incompetent to represent themselves in immigration proceedings."

The importance of Franco-Gonzalez-and the government's policy response-cannot be overstated. Not only has the litigation resulted in the implementation of crucial safeguards for a particularly vulnerable population facing removal, but it represents a critical step toward improving access to counsel for all individuals facing removal.


The American Immigration Lawyers Association is the national association of immigration lawyers established to promote justice, advocate for fair and reasonable immigration law and policy, advance the quality of immigration and nationality law and practice, and enhance the professional development of its members.

Cite as AILA Doc. No. 14062149.