The combination of insufficient resources for mentally ill people and a Texas law requiring law enforcement cooperation with ICE has created a toxic and dangerous situation for immigrants with mental health issues in the state. A new report from the Texas Observer tells the stories of two young Latina women who were caught up in deportation proceedings after police responded to their mental health crises.
Janelie Rodriguez, 25, was at home with her family in October 2017 when she began experiencing a psychotic episode. Her family, concerned about her well-being and safety, called 911, assuming that paramedics would show up. Instead, three police officers arrived at their house, escalating the situation. Rodriguez tried to hide from the cops, but eventually all three of them restrained the less than 100-pound, five foot tall woman. “They went from being patient to like they were about to arrest a criminal on the street, instantly,” Rodriguez’ brother Alexis told the Observer. “They start circling her, and obviously she freaks out; that’s when they pin her down.”
The officers took Rodriguez to a hospital, but she was later charged with felony assault for biting one of the officers (a charge which Rodriguez denies and was later dropped). Rodriguez was a DACA recipient—her parents brought her to the States when she was two years old. After she was released from the hospital, police arrested her.
From the Observer:
Once Rodriguez was locked up, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a detainer, an order for the jail not to release her without giving ICE time to pick her up. In all, she spent six months in county jail before agreeing to a plea deal, upon which she was transferred to an ICE facility in South Texas, where she now faces deportation to a country she doesn’t remember.
Another young Texas immigrant found herself in a similar situation this July. Tania Silva, 21, was an Austin resident and community college student when she began experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia. As she wandered through the Austin streets one night acting strangely, someone let her into their home and called EMS. But cops turned up instead.
The Observer details what happened next:
According to police records reviewed by the Observer, the encounter went south when Silva refused to relinquish a small dog she was holding at the time, and which officers knew was giving her comfort. Two male officers grabbed her by each arm and handcuffed her. Panicked, Silva lashed out, allegedly kicking and scratching one of the officers. Then, one cop struck her in the back, and she was restrained with a hobble strap.
The officers took her to jail instead of a hospital, where she remained for three weeks. Silva was also undocumented. She was charged with felony assault, and ICE placed a detainer on her. As her mental health deteriorated, ICE, under pressure from attorneys, made the unusual decision to drop her detainer. She’s now recovering in a private hospital.
“Situations like this are heartbreaking and unfortunately, not uncommon,” Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez told the Observer. The Texas state law SB4, which went into effect last September, banned sanctuary cities and mandated law enforcement cooperation with ICE. Before that, Hernandez rejected most ICE detainers. “This is one of the reasons I continue to oppose SB 4; it denies law enforcement the discretion to do the right thing for the right reason,” she said.
Silva and Rodriguez cases also reveal a larger problem with how mental health crises are dealt with in our country. Police are used as a de-facto mental health crisis team, despite a lack of training and their tendency to escalate situations. Their inability to appropriately deal with mentally ill people leads to hundreds of unnecessary deaths—a 2015 study from the Washington Post found that 25 percent of victims of police shootings were mentally ill.
“Law enforcement has been thrust into being first responders in mental health crises,” Greg Hansch, policy director for the Texas branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told the Observer. “The reality is, their tactics often escalate the situation, rather than de-escalate it, and that feeds directly into a crime being committed.”
Once police get involved, it’s likely that a mentally ill person will be charged with assault or resisting arrest, and transported to jail rather than an appropriate institution. This “system,” or lack thereof, is part of the reason why half of the total U.S. prison population are mentally ill.
When you’re undocumented, police intervention in any situation becomes even more dangerous. Because of our system’s failures, and her family’s desire to protect her, Rodriguez may be sent back to a country she hasn’t lived in since before she could read. The burden of deportation on top of serious mental illness is more than any individual should have to bear.