By William Fisher
An American citizen of Puerto Rican descent with mental disabilities is suing the U.S. government for wrongfully deporting him to Mexico and forcing him to endure over four months of living on the streets and in the shelters and prisons of Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala.
The suits were filed last week on behalf of U.S. citizen Mark Lyttle by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Georgia and the ACLU of North Carolina, in federal courts in those states.
Azadeh Shahshahani, director of the National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project of the ACLU of Georgia, told IPS, “Mark’s case is a tragedy that serves to underscore the deep systemic injustices that continue to plague our government’s system of detention and deportation.”
“Mark is just one of thousands of people in this country who have been victimized by a single-minded focus on detention and deportation without the kind of individualized determinations that are the essence of due process.”
According to the ACLU, Mark Lyttle’s story is not unique. A recent report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch (HRW) claims that people with mental disabilities, including US citizens, face an even greater risk of erroneous deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) because courts do not ensure fair hearings for those not able to represent themselves.
"Few areas of US law are as complicated as deportation, and yet every day people with mental disabilities must go to court without lawyers or any safeguards that make the hearings fair," said Sarah Mehta, Aryeh Neier fellow at HRW and the ACLU. "Some have disabilities so severe that they don't know their own names or what a judge is."
The groups urged Congress to pass legislation requiring the appointment of lawyers for all people with mental disabilities in immigration courts.
Their 98-page report, "Deportation by Default: Mental Disability, Unfair Hearings, and Indefinite Detention in the US Immigration System," says that immigrants with mental disabilities are often unjustifiably detained for years on end, sometimes with no legal limits.
The report documents numerous cases in which people with mental disabilities were prevented from making claims against deportation -- including claims of U.S. citizenship -- because they were unable to represent themselves. Some of the people interviewed for the report did not know their own names, were delusional, could not tell time, or did not know that deportation meant removal from the United States.
Of the 57,000 detained immigrants facing deportation in 2008, 15 percent had mental disabilities. Under current immigration law and practice, immigration detainees have no right to court-appointed lawyers or to other safeguards, such as evaluations of their ability to receive a fair hearing, when they go through deportation hearings, HRW and the ACLU said.
Their report also shows that people with mental disabilities not only face arrest and deportation without safeguards, but are also routinely detained by ICE during the course of their hearings.
The ACLU says Mark Lyttle's entanglement with immigration authorities began when he was about to be released from a North Carolina jail where he was serving a short sentence for inappropriately touching a worker's backside in a halfway house that serves individuals with mental disorders.
“Despite having ample evidence that Lyttle was a U.S. citizen – including his social security number, the names of his parents, his sworn statements that he was born in the United States and criminal record checks – officials from the North Carolina Department of Correction referred him to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as an undocumented immigrant whose country of birth was Mexico,” the civil liberties group said.
Lyttle had never been to Mexico, shared no Mexican heritage, spoke no Spanish and did not claim to be from Mexico.
The state of North Carolina has an agreement with ICE requiring state officials to report all incarcerated individuals who they believe were born in other countries. ICE began investigating Lyttle and sent him to the Stewart Detention Facility, an immigration detention center in Lumpkin, Ga. where he spent six weeks.
Although ICE knew of Lyttle's long and documented history of mental illness and noted that he did not comprehend the investigation of his status, he was not offered legal assistance and was deported to Mexico.
The ACLU contends that Lyttle was left alone and penniless in Mexico and unable to communicate in Spanish. Mexican authorities sent him to Honduras, where he was imprisoned and faced with guards who threatened to shoot him. Honduran officials sent him to Guatemala and, eventually, he made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City.
Within a day, the ACLU says, embassy officials contacted one of Lyttle's three brothers at the military base where he was serving, leading to Lyttle being issued a U.S. passport. His brother wired him money and Lyttle was soon on a flight to Atlanta. Upon Lyttle's arrival, border officials, seeing his history of ICE investigations, held and questioned him for several hours before letting him go.
During this four-month ordeal, Lyttle was unable to take his medications to treat his mental illnesses and was subject to cycles of manic activity and depression. He is now living in Griffin, Ga., where he is recovering and receiving medication for his mental health problems.
The lawsuits seek damages and injunctive relief for violations of Lyttle's constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.
The Obama administration recently announced that in the past year it deported more than 392,000 unauthorized immigrants -- a record.