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Yes, the U.S. Wrongfully Deports Its Own Citizens

Esha Bhandari,
Deputy Director, ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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April 25, 2013

This week’s New Yorker features the harrowing ordeal of Mark Lyttle, a U.S. citizen with mental disabilities who was deported to Mexico. Lyttle was born in North Carolina and has psychiatric and cognitive disabilities. He was inexplicably referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2008 after being misidentified as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico even though he had never been to Mexico, shared no Mexican heritage, and did not speak any Spanish. As the New Yorker article notes, “Lyttle is brown-skinned,” and “the vagaries of race and ethnicity obviously played a part” in causing him to be singled out for immigration enforcement.

ICE detained Lyttle for 51 days, despite substantial evidence that he is a U.S. citizen, and put him in removal proceedings, where he was forced to defend himself without ever having the assistance of a lawyer. Lyttle was ordered removed in December 2008, and forced to cross the Mexican border on foot with only $3 in his pocket. Lyttle endured 125 days wandering through Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, sleeping in streets and shelters, and even being imprisoned in a Honduran jail, before he was finally referred to a U.S. consular officer in Guatemala who actually listened to his story. The officer obtained confirmation of Lyttle’s U.S. citizenship by calling one of his brothers who serves in the U.S. military. Only through the extensive efforts of Lyttle’s family and a lawyer was he finally able to return.

Lyttle’s tale is unfortunately far from unique. Although no exact numbers exist, ICE regularly detains and deports U.S. citizens without ever providing them with a lawyer. And the U.S. continues to run a system of detention and deportation that fails adequately to protect the rights of vulnerable individuals like Lyttle.

The New Yorker article by William Finnegan, “The Deportation Machine,” highlights many of the continuing systemic problems with ICE policies, including its use of the flawed Secure Communities program, the prevalence of racial profiling, and the lack of any right to appointed counsel for individuals in immigration court. This lack of counsel is particularly problematic for people such as Lyttle, who, because of their mental disabilities, may not understand the immigration proceeding enough to be able to represent themselves adequately.

Although Lyttle was eventually able to return home with the help of a lawyer, not all those who are wrongfully deported have access to the same resources. In Lyttle’s case, the government spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to detain him, prosecute his removal proceedings and litigate against his federal court case—brought by the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, the ACLU of Georgia, the ACLU of North Carolina, and pro bono lawyers including the law firm of Troutman Sanders—and ultimately pay him monetary damages. However, the government has never admitted any wrongdoing, nor has it put in place procedures sufficient to ensure that this cannot happen to others.

On Tuesday a federal district judge ordered the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Attorney General, and the Executive Office of Immigration Review to provide legal representation to immigrant detainees with mental disabilities who are facing deportation and who are unable to adequately represent themselves in immigration hearings. The ruling in the class-action lawsuit Franco-Gonzalez v. Holder is the first of its kind for immigrant detainees, who often languish in detention facilities for years without legal representation.

While a landmark victory, this ruling only applies to people in California, Arizona, and Washington. More is still need to protect the constitutional rights of those particularly vulnerable to mistakes caused by ICE’s aggressive enforcement tactics. As Mark Lyttle’s case demonstrates, the risk of wrongful detention and deportation is all too real for U.S. citizens and immigrants alike.

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