Thursday, October 14, 2010
Troutman Sanders and ACLU File Complaints on Behalf of Mark Lyttle, Deported U.S. Citizen (and Puerto Rican?)
I took this photograph of Mark last year when we visited a Christian boarding school that cared for him when he was young. He now stands again, still, in front of another semi-mythical story of origins about his "Puerto Rican descent" the ACLU has highlighted, one not so different from everyone else's stories of descent that we repeat based on the inventions of others.
Yesterday Troutman Sanders, a top tier Atlanta law firm, alongside the ACLU, filed a pro bono lawsuit on behalf of Mark Lyttle against a bunch of bad government actors and agencies that deported Mark, a U.S. citizen, from the United States to Mexico. The complaints tell an amazing story of government malfeasance and worse, and have the documents to back it all up. The legal and narrative work here is overwhelming and impressive.
You can find the lawsuit filed against bad government actors in North Carolina here, and the complaint against bad government actors in Georgia here .
Since the ACLU has put its public relations muscle behind this, the story, thank goodness, is all over the world, which is terrific because the complaints document systemic civil rights abuses that affect thousands of U.S. residents in ICE custody today, including U.S. citizens.
One lead item in these media stories, based on a paragraph in the complaints, however, bothers me. The problem is not the fault of Troutman Sanders or the ACLU, which put together a remarkably compelling, clear, detailed, and accurate narrative of Mark's ordeal. And yet, the statement that Mark is a "U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent" has only his adoptive mother's own observations based on his appearance, reiterated by her sons, including Mark, to back this up.
The "only" here is not a feature that is unique to Mark's story; after all, how else do we know who we are? Every family has its own confusions about its background and a compulsion to come up with a story, to wit my mother and grandmother used to argue about whether her father was from Hungary or Romania and I honestly don't remember who "won."
I guess my point here is that family narratives of ethnicity make me queasy and I don't feel better reading about Mark's Puerto Rican descent in the newspaper than I do hearing his adoptive mother give me her reason for believing this, "He's always looked Caribbean to me."
I have spent a lot of time with Mark and his family, and while Mark's mother, Jeanne, has offered various speculations on the ethnic identity and background of Mark's biological parents, including that his biological father is Puerto Rican, neither she nor anyone else, as far as I can ascertain, have any concrete evidence this is the case.
This seems such a small point that mentioning it calls for an explanation. The reason this bothers me so much is that putting forward a claim about someone's ethnicity in this context capitulates to a narrative quest for ethnic origins that is at once commonplace and understandable, especially if the desire is to offer an explanation for how this happened to Mark, but also consistent with arbitrary divisions and background narratives that have proven troublesome. I am not suggesting that Troutman Sanders or the ACLU were wrong to include this information in the context of a lawsuit, but wondering whether as a society there is something wrong with us for expecting or even needing it.
The bulk of the complaints reveal that the U.S. government had no evidence that Mark was born in Mexic and had a lot of evidence that he was born in the United States. Period. Why is there an expectation that the story needs more?
Now that the ACLU, understandably following the lead of Mark's family, has asserted Mark is of Puerto Rican descent, the press has picked up on this and this "fact" appears close to the lead in many of the articles describing his ordeal, the complaint brilliantly nailing ICE for its egregious violations of the law and Mark's dignity while perhaps abetting along the way a curious and unsurprising fiction.