How does a U.S. citizen who has never been to Mexico, speaks no Spanish and shares no Mexican heritage end up being deported there, spending the next four months living on the streets and in the shelters and prisons of Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala? It's just the latest instance of blatant disregard for the rights and well being of people with mental disabilities by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Mark Lyttle's brush with immigration officials began when he was about to be released from a North Carolina jail where he was serving a short sentence for touching a worker's backside in a halfway house that serves individuals with mental disabilities. Even though they had plenty of evidence that he was a U.S. citizen — including his Social Security number and the names of his parents — corrections officials turned him over to ICE as an undocumented immigrant whose country of birth was Mexico. (Mark is actually of Puerto Rican descent, but I guess when the government is trying to kick a Latino guy out of the country, the easiest place to send him is Mexico.)
ICE held Mark for six weeks, and though they knew about his history of mental illness and noted that he didn't understand the investigation into his immigration status, they provided no legal assistance in either his interrogation or court appearance and eventually deported him to Mexico. Penniless and unable to speak the language, he was sent by Mexican officials to Honduras, where he was imprisoned and threatened by prison guards. Honduran officials sent him to Guatemala, where he eventually made his way to the U.S. Embassy.
Within a day, embassy officials were able to contact one of Mark's brothers on the military base where he was serving and issue Mark a passport. His brother wired him money and Mark was soon on a flight to Atlanta. But adding insult to injury, upon seeing his history of ICE investigations, immigration officials in Atlanta held and questioned him for several hours before letting him go.
Today, the ACLU and our affiliates in Georgia and North Carolina have filed lawsuits on Mark's behalf, but the question on my mind is "how could this have happened?" The answer, as reported by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch in a report issued this July, is that both ICE and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have failed to implement meaningful safeguards for people with mental disabilities facing possible deportation from the United States. The system fails to even live up to basic standards of the American justice system, such as the right to appointed counsel for people who must defend against deportation even when their mental disabilities make it practically impossible to understand what "deportation" means. As immigration attorney Megan Bremer has noted:
Due process is part of judicial integrity. It's a basic principle that this country has decided to prioritize. It's one of our greatest exports — we send people all over the world to talk about rule of law and how to reform judicial systems but we're not doing it here in our fastest growing judicial system [the immigration courts].
The result is that people like Mark who have a right to remain in the United States can be deported because they never get a fair chance to present their cases.
Mark's story is a wake-up call. We hope that ICE and DOJ will implement reforms designed to protect the rights of people with mental disabilities now, before they accidentally put another citizen through the ordeal they caused for Mark Lyttle.