By Esha Bhandari, ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project
Mark Lyttle, an American citizen with mental disabilities who was wrongfully detained and deported to Mexico and forced to live on the streets and in prisons for months, settled his case against the federal government this week.
Lyttle will receive $175,000 for the suffering he endured after being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who deported him despite ample evidence that he was a U.S. citizen. The settlement comes after a federal district court in Georgia ruled in Lyttle’s favor in March, holding that the bulk of his claims against the federal defendants should not be dismissed.
“What happened to Mark Lyttle is outrageous and unconstitutional,” said Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, which has been representing Lyttle along with ACLU affiliates and a partner firm. “People with mental disabilities are entitled to due process in immigration court, and it is fundamentally unfair, as well as inhumane, to force them to endure such proceedings alone, without the assistance of a lawyer.”
Lyttle’s case is unfortunately not unique, but demonstrates the systemic failures of ICE and the federal government to protect the rights of individuals with mental disabilities. The current lack of procedural safeguards—including no right to appointed counsel—means that even U.S. citizens can end up in immigration detention and be deported. It is a growing problem as more people are being swept up under the nation’s unreasonable detention and deportation practices.
Lyttle, who was born in North Carolina and suffers from bipolar disorder and cognitive disabilities, was inexplicably referred to ICE in 2008 as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico even though he had never been to Mexico, shared no Mexican heritage, and spoke no Spanish. ICE detained him for 51 days, despite substantial evidence that he is a U.S. citizen. Nevertheless, ICE officials coerced Lyttle into signing a statement that he was from Mexico, and then put him in removal proceedings, where he was forced to defend himself without ever having the assistance of a lawyer.
Lyttle was ordered to be removed from the country in December 2008, transported to the Mexican border, and forced to disembark there and travel through Mexico on foot, with only $3 in his pocket. He spent the next 125 days wandering through Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua, sleeping in streets and shelters and enduring abuse and imprisonment because he had no identity documents or proof of citizenship.
It was only after Lyttle came across a sympathetic U.S. embassy official in Guatemala that he was able to secure a passport and return to the United States in April 2009. Even then, ICE officials at the Atlanta airport detained him for six days and attempted to remove him again. Only after the assistance of his family and a lawyer was Lyttle released and the case against him terminated.
Lyttle’s ordeal should never have happened. State and federal officials knew of his history of repeated hospitalizations for mental disabilities, and yet no one took any steps to provide him with a lawyer or other safeguards to protect his rights.
Yet he is not the only example of such unconstitutional treatment at the hands of ICE officials. In addition to representing Lyttle, the ACLU has been involved in a class action lawsuit in California, which aims to secure due process protections for all individuals with mental disabilities caught in the sweep of immigration detention and enforcement, so that what happened to Mark Lyttle never happens again.