One American’s story is shining new light on an all-too common problem. As US immigration authorities reportedly aim for 400,000 deportations a year, the bureaucratic monolith has, perhaps inevitably, begun unlawfully exiling American citizens.
Mark Lyttle, an American troubled by mental disabilities and a checkered legal history, was being transferred from one prison to another when a government clerk filled out his intake form incorrectly. He was misidentified as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico despite having no Mexican heritage and speaking no Spanish. His story, which began in 2008, is the subject of a New Yorker Magazine feature, titled The Deportation Machine, this week.
Lyttle was held for 51 days by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) before being deported south of the border. The New Yorker noted that Lyttle is “brown-skinned” and that “the vagaries of race and ethnicities obviously played a part” in his being kick out of his home country.
He spent 125 days wandering through Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala without psychiatric medicine before finally being allowed re-entry into the US. He had only $3 dollars in his pocket when he walked over a bridge from Texas to Mexico and spent nights on the streets and in shelters, once being arrested in Honduras where he befriended a notorious drug kingpin.
Lyttle was finally awarded $175,000 at the end of 2012, although the federal government has not admitted any wrongdoing while several of the ICE officers who oversaw his case - and ignored ample proof of his citizenship - have since been promoted.
He described his time in South America as “hell,” and Lyttle’s mother told the magazine he was noticeably different when he moved in with her upon his return.
“He was quiet,” she said. “And an awful lot thinner.
He was constantly watching his back, like somebody was going to
jump out and grab him. Every time he heard a siren, it was like
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He says he doesn’t trust anybody in
a uniform anymore. He would cry, and say that he thought God would
never get him home again. Why wouldn’t they listen to
While the American Civil Liberties Union reported there are, perhaps not by accident, no concrete numbers on how many Americans have been wrongfully deported, experts estimate a few dozen people have been victimized by the bureaucratic dispersal of responsibility.
“What happened to Mark Lyttle is outrageous and unconstitutional,” Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project said after Lyttle was awarded the settlement. “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.”
But the problem looks to be an indication of a much larger issue. The Obama administration has, in an effort to mute Republican claims that the president is 'soft' on immigration, exceeded its own record new deportation numbers every single year. And while ICE officials have denied any quota in place, from up the chain of command a leaked 2010 memo outlined a desire for 400,000 deportations every year.
“Between 1982 and 1997, the United States deported 2.1 million,” wrote William Finnegan. “By the end of next year, if present trends continue, the Obama Administration will have deported that many in a mere six years.”