ATLANTA – A mentally disabled U.S. citizen who spoke no Spanish was deported to Mexico with little but a prison jumpsuit after immigration agents manipulated him into signing documents allowing his removal, a lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges. His lawyers say the agents ignored records showing his Social Security number, while prison officials wouldn't tell concerned relatives what happened.
The lawsuit filed in federal court in Atlanta by the American Civil Liberties Union seeks damages from the federal government and people ranging from Obama administration officials to immigration agents. It also asks for a jury trial.
Mark Lyttle was serving prison time in North Carolina for a misdemeanor offense in 2008 when prison officials say he gave Mexico as his place of birth, drawing the attention of immigration agents. His lawyers acknowledge he eventually signed papers allowing his deportation, but argue he was too mentally disabled to understand what he was doing. He spent four months in Central America before his family helped him return.
"The government failed to protect Mr. Lyttle, and individuals who lacked the proper training and oversight violated Mr. Lyttle's constitutional rights," the lawsuit said. The government does not have the right to deport U.S. citizens.
The lawsuit also alleges discrimination because Lyttle is of Puerto Rican descent and looks Hispanic.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice said the department would review the complaint once the government is served and will respond in court. An ICE spokesman said the agency wouldn't comment, citing ongoing litigation.
A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security did not have immediate comment on the lawsuit.
The ordeal began after Lyttle, now 33, was charged with inappropriately touching a female orderly at a psychiatric hospital. In August 2008, he was sentenced to 100 days in prison.
When Lyttle entered custody, "he reported his place of birth as Mexico City, Mexico," said Keith Acree, spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Correction.
A parallel federal lawsuit is being filed in North Carolina against immigration and prison officials there.
Lyttle's lawyers wouldn't make him available for an interview, but relatives have trouble believing he'd say he was from Mexico.
"I couldn't believe that, honestly," his 31-year-old brother David said. "That doesn't even make sense."
He was interviewed by multiple immigration agents in prison. One agent's notes say "Mr. Lyttle's name was assumed to be 'Jose Thomas' and that Mr. Lyttle's true name, Mark Daniel Lyttle, was assumed to be an alias," the lawsuit says, adding that the agent wrote that Lyttle entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico at age 3.
Immigration agents "coerced and manipulated" Lyttle more than once into signing false statements saying he was a citizen of Mexico and agreed to be deported, the suit says.
The lawsuit contends the agents searched databases on Lyttle's criminal history and repeatedly came up with records showing his Social Security number.
Because of his mental disabilities, "Mr. Lyttle did not understand what he was signing or that he unknowingly consented to being deported," the suit says.
David Lyttle said his brother has developmental problems at least partly because of a rough early childhood. He was removed from an abusive home at age 7 and ultimately adopted. He attended elementary school, but missed high school because he was frequently sent to mental hospitals.
"I'm pretty sure that under pressure from police and judges and immigration agents he would have been overwhelmed and confused," David Lyttle said.
In October 2008, Lyttle was sent to an immigration detention facility in south Georgia and interviewed by another agent. That interrogation form "accurately reflected that Mr. Lyttle was 'a native of United States and a citizen of United States,'" but the agent still said Lyttle could be deported because of criminal convictions.
An immigration judge ordered Lyttle deported in December 2008 without letting him present evidence or deny he was Mexican, the lawsuit says.
His lawyers say Lyttle was then flown to Texas and "forced to disembark and sent off on foot into Mexico, still wearing the prison-issued jumpsuit."
Shortly after, he was turned away at a U.S. border crossing in Texas and spent the next 115 days wandering Central America. He was arrested and imprisoned in Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua because he couldn't prove his identity or citizenship, the lawsuit says.
Meanwhile, his family wondered where he was. Prison officials told them he'd been released but didn't say he'd been handed over to immigration agents, David Lyttle said.
"It was just as if he vanished. We couldn't find him at all," David Lyttle said
Lyttle finally made it to the U.S. embassy in Guatemala, where an employee tracked down his family. They sent copies of his adoption records, and a passport was issued. His family wired Lyttle money for a plane ticket.
On April 22, 2009, Lyttle landed in Atlanta, where he was detained by agents who tried to quickly deport him again, the suit says. A lawyer hired by his family found him in detention and got him released.
The Department of Homeland Security filed a motion on April 28, 2009 to terminate deportation proceedings, stating that he was, in fact, a U.S. citizen.
David Lyttle said his brother has a job and is doing OK.
"I hope that, at the end of all this, that he's well taken care of and compensated," David Lyttle said. "It's just a darn shame what he had to go through."