Mark Lyttle, 31, born in Salisbury, North Carolina, was exhausted and traumatized, but he insisted on talking tonight. He's also very angry. He'd just been released this morning from the Fulton Jail in Atlanta after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) violated his dignity and liberty one last time and arrested him Wednesday at the Atlanta Airport on the charge of illegal re-entry, a charge predicated on alienage. Mark is a U.S. citizen.
In the language of the DHS Mark was "ordered removed" as a noncitizen on December 9, 2008. That's a bureaucratic euphemism for what really happened: Mark's government kidnapped him, rendered him stateless, dropped him off in Mexico, and four months later, after he was kicked out of Mexico to Honduras, and from Honduras to Guatemala via Nicaragua, bought him a Big Mac before arresting him again in the United States.Mark's mother, Jeanne Lyttle, 60, an occupational therapy assistant who raised Mark and his three special needs siblings after adopting them, also had something to say. (Jeanne's husband died a year and a half after the adoption.) They spoke to me on Friday evening, April 24, 2009 from Jeanne's home in Kennesaw, Georgia. On October 26, 2008, Mark was supposed to be released after serving 85 out of a 100 day sentence at the Pasquotank County Jail in North Carolina for a misdemeanor. Instead, a woman from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told him that they'd figured out his real name was Jose Thomas, that he was Mexican, and that he was going to be sent to Mexico.Mark said, "The prison gave me my release papers and the next thing I know, I'm in a white minivan and they drive me all the way Raleigh. Then after that they fly me all the way to the ACC and I stayed there for a month. They were calling me Jose Thomas. They were trying to say that's my real name. I told them my name is Mark Daniel Lyttle, I was born in North Carolina." Mark started speaking rapidly, saying a phrase that he repeated at several points, and I felt the urgency that, shockingly, was belittled and ignored in his encounters with the people sending him away, "My mother's Jeanne Lyttle, here's my social security number, my brother's in the army, please call someone!" He told this to several ICE agents. He told this to William Cassidy, the immigration judge who ordered him removed on December 9, 2008. Mark told this to the U.S. border patrol in Texas after he was dumped in Mexico. "No one checked. No one believed me." Jeanne picked up the story, "The judge looked at the piece of paper someone gave him and said that since Mark didn't have any proof, he needed to go by that piece of paper." As I've seen in many other cases, detainees do not have money to contact people. Mark simply couldn't pay the exorbitant fees jails and detentions centers charge for a phone call. [NOTE: This is what I first understood but then later Jeanne told me she had moved and his brothers were on new bases, so Mark did not have their phone numbers on hand.]
Judge Cassidy ignored Mark's pleas. Judge Cassidy could have tried to call Mark's mother; a DHS attorney could have looked up Mark's social security number. And anyone from ICE could have tracked down Mark's brother who was on a base in Kentucky. No one did a thing. Jeanne said, "Why didn't they look up his fingerprints, his social security number, why didn't they follow through on anything?" I asked Mark if anyone told him that he could appeal the decision. He replied, "I was going to appeal until I found out that it would be six months to two years before I'd have a chance, and even if I did that, they still wouldn't believe me." He found the Stewart Detention Center unbearable. A detainee from El Salvador told him, "'You need to fight these people.'" Mark replied, "I don't want to stay here as long you have" and decided to take his chances from Mexico, even though the Mexican detainees were warning him not speaking any Spanish was going to make it tough. "They told me, 'your biggest problem is going to be the language.'" Mark was dropped off somewhere near the Texas border with between five to ten pesos, Jeanne said. The only piece of identification he had was a deportation order for Jose Thomas. Mark told them his full name, that his mother was Jeanne Lyttle, that he was born in North Carolina, and his brother was in the army. He asked them to call his mother, his brother, to check his social security number. The border patrol guard looked at his paper and said he "was illegal."Mark, defeated, headed south and was wandering around Mexico until he found some missionaries who gave him shelter and fed him after he hadn't eaten for two weeks. At some point, two months after being kidnapped by ICE, tried in a fake court, rendered stateless and dropped off in foreign country where he did not know a single person and could not speak the language, Mark crossed paths with the Mexican police, who confiscated his deportation order for Jose Thomas and put him on a bus to Honduras.
When Mark couldn't produce a passport for the border guards in Honduras, they "drove me three hours to San Pedro and left me in a jail with robbers and killers." Jeanne added, "A woman jailer named Sonia would spit at him and stick her tongue out. She hit the doors while he was sleeping so he couldn't sleep, and told two inmates to take him out so they could shoot him. One of them was bilingual and told Mark what was happening and he wouldn't do it." After a month and two days, the Honduran immigration officials wanted to ship him to Guatemala, but for some reason the van stopped in Nicaragua, and then Mark was dropped off in Guatemala. The Guatemalan police pointed him the direction of the U.S. embassy. Once they spoke with his brother and were convinced he was a U.S. citizen, the embassy staff bought him a hamburger at the McDonald's across the street. Jeanne, herself from Ireland and adopted, ended our conversation by saying, "I love this country so much. I cry every time "The Star Spangled Banner" is done. This tears my heart to pieces that they could do this to him. How many others are out there we don't know about who are stuck places?"Mark said he was going to stay with his brother in Kentucky because "I'd feel safer. I'm so disgusted with ICE. He's a high ranking officer. I fear these people now because they're messing me up. My lawyer [Neil Rambana] says you don't need to worry now, but I don't trust them. It was a real passport I had, but they still detained me again."
I was told that Kelly Nantel from DHS would address questions about this case today, but she has not contacted me. [Added 4/25/09: DHS did issue a press statement to a local television reporter that contained false information. According to the reporter, the statement said: "Immediately upon learning that Mr. Lyttle was claiming U.S. Citizenship and had been detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, ICE conducted a thorough investigation and review of his file and all available information. Based upon the available information, ICE concluded that Mr. Lyttle is probably a U.S. citizen. ICE has initiated and will complete all the necessary actions to correct DHS databases." However, ICE did not conduct this investigation "immediately" but only after I spoke with Barbara Gonzalez and she contacted ICE agents in Atlanta. Until that point, ICE it Atlanta ignored Neil Rambana's repeated phone calls on his client's behalf, as I posted on Thursday, April 23. It's great that Gonzalez got someone to do something on Thursday, but ICE knew on Wednesday that Mark was claiming U.S. citizenship and it's unclear how long they would have held onto him if Gonzalez had not intervened. ICE was responsible for shipping him out in the first place; I've seen many other similar cases (well, without so much international travel) in which people with Mark's fact patterns and without a sympathetic ICE agent intervening at the behest of a professor/journalist are not just detained but charged with illegal re-entry.]
UPDATE Monday, 4/27/09 5:25 EST--At 2:15 this afternoon I sent a waiver signed by Mark and witnessed by his brother authorizing DHS to review with me the government's account of his deportation. Barbara Gonzalez told me that in 2 hours she would discuss the file. At 4:30 she told me she had forwarded the waiver and was waiting to "hear from our attorneys."
NEXT INSTALLMENT: What Mark's brothers and mother were going through after Mark was kidnapped and they didn't know where he was.