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.