Mental competency crucial to fair immigration proceedings, experts agree

UH Law Center hosts annual Joseph A. Vail immigration workshop .

UH Law Center Clinical Associate Professor Geoffrey Hoffman, Immigration Clinic Director From left to right: UH Law Center Visiting Assistant Clinical Professor and Immigration Clinic Supervising Attorney Janet Beck, Baylor College of Medicine Forensic Psychiatrist Dr. Andrea Stolar, the Honorable Howard Rose, and UH Law Center Immigration Clinic Supervising Attorney Susham Modi
UH Law Center Clinical Associate Professor Geoffrey Hoffman, Immigration Clinic Director From left to right: UH Law Center Visiting Assistant Clinical Professor and Immigration Clinic Supervising Attorney Janet Beck, Baylor College of Medicine Forensic Psychiatrist Dr. Andrea Stolar, the Honorable Howard Rose, and UH Law Center Immigration Clinic Supervising Attorney Susham Modi

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June 11, 2013 – More than 70 attorneys and immigration specialists gathered at the University of Houston Law Center on Friday for a day-long workshop focused on helping immigrants and those who represent them maneuver through the complicated maze of immigration law and policy. The Joseph A. Vail Workshop explored two aspects of immigration law – representing immigrants with mental disabilities and developing the tools and techniques needed in asylum cases.

"The workshop provides practitioners with valuable information which allows them to take on a pro bono asylum case," Immigration Clinic Director Geoffrey Hoffman said. "It also allows them to become a part of the network of mentors and assistance provided by public interest organizations, including UH, here in Houston. The need for counsel is important. The chances for obtaining relief are vastly improved for immigrants with counsel versus those who represent themselves." Professor Hoffman introduced the speakers and kicked off the workshop by emphasizing the need for legal representation in immigration proceedings.

The event was sponsored by the Law Center's Immigration Clinic, the Cabrini Center of Catholic Charities of Galveston-Houston, and YMCA International Services. The annual CLE workshop is named in honor of the late Law Center Professor Joseph A. Vail who founded the school's Immigration Clinic and helped countless immigrants.

"I hope that people attending the workshop will gain an understanding not just about the persecution that many clients have faced but how their stories affect the attorneys, students, and other legal professionals who help them," Hoffman said.

This year the program included mental health experts, an immigration judge, asylum officers, and speakers on topics ranging from affirmative asylum before the agency to defensive asylum before the immigration courts. The afternoon session opened with Janet Beck, clinical assistant professor and supervising attorney of the Law Center's Immigration Clinic, discussing mental competency and mental illness as they affect immigration court proceedings.

According to Beck, the process for determining whether someone is competent to participate in immigration proceedings became easier through the Board of Immigration Appeal's (BIA) precedent-setting decision in Matter of M-A-M. This established a framework for judges to apply in cases where a person's mental competency might be in question. Beck was the supervising attorney on the BIA's decision M-A-M.

"Someone can be found competent but still mentally ill," Beck said. "If this is the case, then safeguards still need to be put in place. The evaluation of competency is crucial to the case because immigration proceedings are based on fundamental fairness."

Following Beck, Dr. Andrea Stolar explained the evaluation process in determining mental competency. Stolar is a forensic psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine.

"Mental competency is not a static condition," Stolar said. "It is possible for competency to either deteriorate or improve. When preforming an evaluation, maintaining objectivity is crucial. Forensic evaluators' loyalty is to the truth, not to the patient."

Later in the afternoon, Jill Campbell talked about emerging issues regarding the asylum clock - the 150 days after an applicant files an asylum application before the applicant can apply for an employment authorization document (EAD). Campbell is a clinical supervising attorney at the Law Center's Immigration Clinic.

"Many attorneys and asylum applicants experience problems with the asylum clock because of the administrative procedures," Campbell said. "It's difficult to know what stops or starts the clock. It's also hard to challenge where you are at on the clock."

Susham Modi, a clinical supervising attorney at the Immigration Clinic, discussed gang-related asylum cases. Modi noted that most of the gang-related cases are made under the grounds of particular social group. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees defines a particular social group as "a group of persons who share a common characteristic other than their risk of being persecuted, or who are perceived as a group by society."

"It is the lawyer's job to define the particular social group," Modi said, cautioning that this can be a difficult task. "It's important to define the particular social group neither too broadly nor too narrowly."

Among the day's highlights was a mock hearing that illustrated issues that may come up when testifying as an expert witness before the immigration court.

UH Law Center Visiting Assistant Clinical Professor Janet Beck, Immigration Clinic Supervising Attorney Baylor College of Medicine Forensic Psychiatrist Dr. Andrea Stolar

UH Law Center Visiting Assistant Clinical Professor Janet Beck, Immigration Clinic Supervising Attorney

Baylor College of Medicine Forensic Psychiatrist Dr. Andrea Stolar
UH Law Center Immigration Clinic Supervising Attorney Jill Campbell UH Law Center Immigration Clinic Supervising Attorney Susham Modi
UH Law Center Immigration Clinic Supervising Attorney Jill Campbell UH Law Center Immigration Clinic Supervising Attorney Susham Modi

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