The U.S. government admitted in April that it had wrongly deported an N.C. native, but newly released documents show that federal investigators ignored FBI records and other evidence showing that the man was a United States citizen.
At the time of Mark Lyttle's deportation, immigration officials had criminal record checks that said he was a U.S. citizen. They had his Social Security number and the names of his parents. They had Lyttle's own sworn statement that he had been born in Rowan County.
None of this stopped them from leaving Lyttle, a mentally ill American who speaks no Spanish, alone and penniless in Mexico, where he has no ties.
Lyttle's 350-page Department of Homeland Security file, released to The (Raleigh) News & Observer, shows that the government deported him based entirely on some of his own conflicting statements, even though agents knew that Lyttle is bipolar and has a learning disability.
“I tried to tell them I was a U.S. citizen born right here in Rowan County,” Lyttle says now. “But no one believed me.”
Lyttle is one of a growing number of people who have been swept up in the federal immigration detention system since 2001, when terrorist attacks prompted an unprecedented effort to find and deport illegal immigrants. The U.S. government deported 350,000 people in the fiscal year that ended in October 2008.
When The N&O first reported on Lyttle's case in April, officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said that Lyttle had caused the mistake by declaring that he was from Mexico. They maintain that position now.
“Individuals who misrepresent their true identity and make false statements to ICE officers create problems both for law enforcement and themselves,” ICE spokesman Ivan Ortiz-Delgado said in a written statement.
Lyttle swore to immigration agents on two occasions that he was Mexican, but he also swore that he was a U.S. citizen born in Rowan County. His Homeland Security file does not reflect any attempt by ICE officials to confirm Lyttle's citizenship claims.
The agent who took Lyttle's statement that he was born in North Carolina dismissed it, saying in a report that Lyttle “does not possess any documentation to support his claim.”
A few dozen pages were withheld from the file released by ICE. But the file provided to The N&O shows no search for a Rowan County birth certificate and no attempts to reach the family members Lyttle named before his initial deportation.
The ICE file states that Lyttle's Mexican citizenship “was established based on interview results and numerous background system checks.” But repeated background checks, from an FBI fingerprint database and the National Crime Information Center, showed he was an American citizen.
Asked by The N&O why they had not accepted the findings in these background checks, ICE officials said they were reviewing their information and could not provide a response after a week.
The inconsistencies in his case were not discussed when Lyttle appeared before an Atlanta immigration judge and was ordered deported on Dec.9. On Dec. 18, he was loaded onto a plane and left at an airport just across the border from Hidalgo, Texas.
On Dec. 29, he returned to the U.S. border threatening to hurt himself and the border patrol agents. “Subject appears to be mentally unstable,” the report notes.
Lyttle, who now lives with his mother in Georgia, says that during his travels he didn't take medications that treat his mental illness and was subject to cycles of manic activity and depression.
Lyttle again told immigration agents he had been born in Rowan County. This time the file shows that they checked for his birth certificate there. They didn't find it because Lyttle is adopted. In cases of adoption, birth certificates are stored in Raleigh, said Shirley Stiller, the deputy register of deeds in Rowan County.
Lyttle was deported a second time, within hours. With no documents to prove legal residency in any country, he soon found himself on an international odyssey.
Mexican authorities sent him to Honduras, where he was imprisoned before being sent to Guatemala.
In late April, he found the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City. Within a day, officials there contacted Lyttle's brother at the military base where Lyttle told them he was serving, got copies of his adoption papers and issued him a U.S. passport.
Three days after his arrival in Guatemala City, his brother had wired him money and Lyttle was on a flight to Atlanta.
U.S. Immigration officials worked Lyttle's case for 31/2 months and held him in immigration detention for more than six weeks.
“This is not rocket science,” said Jacqueline Stevens, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who brought Lyttle's case to light on her blog and is now writing a book about it. “It took someone in Guatemala one day to prove he was a citizen.”
Lyttle, 32, has spent much of his adulthood bouncing among mental institutions, halfway houses and prisons. He has been convicted of more than a dozen crimes, including assault and sexual battery.
He also lost touch with his mother, who had moved during his time in prison, and did not have phone numbers for his two brothers, who are in the military. His father is deceased.
When he entered prison, his country of birth was listed as Mexico. Prison officials say Lyttle made that claim, but in an interview with The N&O, Lyttle said he never invented such a story. Regardless, he was flagged for a federal immigration check.
In September and November 2008, he met with immigration agents three times, each time signing a different sworn statement.
Lyttle says he claimed to be Mexican at the first interview because he thought it was pointless to argue with the agent, who was convinced that he was an illegal immigrant. His birth father was Puerto Rican, and Lyttle says he is often mistaken for Mexican.
He says he figured he would take a free trip to Mexico.