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ICE Deports Non-Spanish Speaking American Citizen to Mexico

Guest blogger: Sam Ritchie from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

How does a U.S. citizen who has never been to Mexico, speaks no Spanish and shares no Mexican heritage end up being deported there, spending the next four months living on the streets and in the shelters and prisons of Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala? It’s just the latest instance of blatant disregard for the rights and well being of people with mental disabilities by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Mark Lyttle’s brush with immigration officials began when he was about to be released from a North Carolina jail where he was serving a short sentence for touching a worker’s backside in a halfway house that serves individuals with mental disabilities. Even though they had plenty of evidence that he was a U.S. citizen — including his Social Security number and the names of his parents — corrections officials turned him over to ICE as an undocumented immigrant whose country of birth was Mexico. (Mark is actually of Puerto Rican descent, but I guess when the government is trying to kick a Latino guy out of the country, the easiest place to send him is Mexico.)

ICE held Mark for six weeks, and though they knew about his history of mental illness and noted that he didn’t understand the investigation into his immigration status, they provided no legal assistance in either his interrogation or court appearance and eventually deported him to Mexico. Penniless and unable to speak the language, he was sent by Mexican officials to Honduras, where he was imprisoned and threatened by prison guards. Honduran officials sent him to Guatemala, where he eventually made his way to the U.S. Embassy.

Within a day, embassy officials were able to contact one of Mark’s brothers on the military base where he was serving and issue Mark a passport. His brother wired him money and Mark was soon on a flight to Atlanta. But adding insult to injury, upon seeing his history of ICE investigations, immigration officials in Atlanta held and questioned him for several hours before letting him go.

On October 13th, the ACLU and our affiliates in Georgia and North Carolina have filed lawsuits on Mark’s behalf, but the question on my mind is “how could this have happened?” The answer, as reported by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch in a report issued this July, is that both ICE and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have failed to implement meaningful safeguards for people with mental disabilities facing possible deportation from the United States. The system fails to even live up to basic standards of the American justice system, such as the right to appointed counsel for people who must defend against deportation even when their mental disabilities make it practically impossible to understand what “deportation” means. As immigration attorney Megan Bremer has noted:

Due process is part of judicial integrity. It’s a basic principle that this country has decided to prioritize. It’s one of our greatest exports — we send people all over the world to talk about rule of law and how to reform judicial systems but we’re not doing it here in our fastest growing judicial system [the immigration courts].

The result is that people like Mark who have a right to remain in the United States can be deported because they never get a fair chance to present their cases.

Azadeh Shahshahani, director of the National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project of the ACLU of Georgia, told the Inter Press Service News Agency-

Mark’s case is a tragedy that serves to underscore the deep systemic injustices that continue to plague our government’s system of detention and deportation…Mark is just one of thousands of people in this country who have been victimised by a single-minded focus on detention and deportation without the kind of individualised determinations that are the essence of due process.

Mark’s story is a wake-up call. We hope that ICE and DOJ will implement reforms designed to protect the rights of people with mental disabilities now, before they accidentally put another citizen through the ordeal they caused for Mark Lyttle.

Mentally ill immigration detainees undergo “Deportation by Default”

A woman sat before immigration officials at an immigration detention center, unable to understand a single question asked of her. She stared into space during the interview, shook her head repeatedly, and rocked nervously in her chair. The interview was eventually terminated because it was not clear if she had granted consent for deportation.

This is not an unusual incidents but reflects the findings of a Human Rights Watch and American Civil Liberties Union report Deportation by Default documenting “case after case in which people with mental disabilities are prevented from making claims against deportation – including claims of U.S. citizenship – because they are unable to represent themselves.”

Shortcomings outlined in the report include no right to counsel even though many are unable to understand what is happening to them, a lack of guidance for judges handling people with mental disabilities, and a severe lack of services to aid detainees while in custody. As Sarah Mehta, the report’s lead author says,

No one knows what to do with detainees with mental disabilities, so every part of the immigration system has abdicated responsibility. The result is people languishing in detention for years while their legal files – and their lives – are transferred around or put on indefinite hold.

Many of the detainees interviewed for the report could not understand questions, were delusional, couldn’t tell the date or time, and didn’t understand the concept of deportation – for example, saying they wanted to be deported to New York. This is particularly important for the courtroom because impairments can be so severe that those who have them do not understand what is happening to them or what is at stake in the hearings they must attend.

The federal agencies involved in the deportation system are well aware of many of the problems cited in the report and the reports authors are cautiously encouraged by some recent steps to better handle people with mental disabilities. For example, The Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review recently expanded its guidebook for immigration judges to include a section on mental health issues. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for detaining people is also taking preliminary steps to better identify mentally disabled people from the outset and ensure they are treated appropriately.

But there are many problems that still need to be addressed. There is no tracking of date on how many mentally disabled people face deportation and it is only after much digging that the report uncovered that in 2009, of the nearly 392,000 cases in immigration courts, 15 percent involved people with mental disabilities. Tracking data is an essential first step. Secondly, the report calls for appointment of lawyers for all people with mental disabilities in immigration courts and recommends mandatory training for immigration judges to recognize mental disabilities.

In the meanwhile, cases like Michael’s continue. Michael claimed to be a U.S. citizen whose extended family was killed in Nigeria. Asked by an asylum officer why he feared deportation to Nigeria, Michael said he would be tortured,

I don’t know why they want to torture me. I’m a rich man. I’m god. They want to have me remove the plants from heaven to earth. Jay-Z and R-Kelly are some of them.

At another point in the credible fear interview, Michael claimed to hear his dead wife and President Obama speaking to him. The asylum officer wrote to reviewing authorities,

Applicant’s testimony was not credible because it was implausible. His testimony was implausible because it was delusional. It should be noted that applicant appears to suffer from psychosis. Therefore, this calls into question the entire credibility of his claim.

The officer also observed that Michael was at risk of persecution and maltreatment on account of his mental disabilities if returned to Nigeria. Despite the concerns raised by the asylum officer, an immigration court ordered Michael A. deported to Nigeria in April 2010.

Nation reporter unmasks extraordinary rendition-like subfields run by ICE

BlogCaryA couple months ago, Jacqueline Stevens, a reporter for the Nation, went on a road trip with Mark Lyttle, a U.S. citizen, born in North Carolina, who had been kidnapped by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), stripped of his rightful identity documents, rendered stateless, and deported to Mexico, to re-locate the government offices that had temporarily held him.

Using google maps, they punched in 140 Centrewest Court, an address that appeared on a number of the documents issued to Lyttle by ICE in Cary, North Carolina.  But when they arrived, Stevens was surprised that the government site was an unmarked building, no sign, no flag, with 15 equally unmarked vans next to an Oxford University Press production plant and a few gated communities.

Wondering how many other clandestine locations existed like this across the country, upon returning to Berkeley, Stevens picked up the phone and began a rigorous investigation of “America’s Secret ICE Castles,” the findings of which will appear in the January 4th edition of the Nation.  First off, she read through, a recent report by Dora Shriro,”Immigration Detention Overview and Recommendations,” and discovered that there were 186 “subfields” which were used to primarily hold people for up to 12-16 hours for 84% of all book-ins.  But because these secret sites are below the legal radar, it’s hard to say how long people are actually held and under what conditions.

When Stevens called ICE  to request a list of the 186 subfields, she was initially told by Temple Black, an ICE public affairs officer, that these locations were “not releasable” and that the list was “law enforcement sensitive.”  However, Mr. Black had a family emergency, and put Stevens in touch with another ICE official, who released a partial list, which she then shared with immigrant rights advocates in major human and civil rights organizations, whose reactions ranged from astonishment to total outrage.

Alison Parker, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch, who wrote a comprehensive report on ICE transit policies,  “Locked Up, Far Away,” for example, had not even heard of the subfield offices and believed that the failure of the U.S. to disclose these locations is a violation of the UN’s Convenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which we are a signatory.  A senior attorney at a civil rights organization, on the other hand angrily proclaimed, “You cannot have secret detention!  The public has the right to know where detention is happening.”

Such lack of transparency frighteningly resonates with extraordinary rendition, and undermines the core principles of a functioning democracy.  Unmarked networks make it near impossible for family and lawyers to track down and access detainees, ultimately stripping immigrants of due process rights afforded to “all persons” under the constitution.  Because these sites are off the grid, and therefore, out of mind, there’s no oversight or standards in place, and detainees are often subjected to the inhumane whims of ICE agents who act in ways that are unconscionable and unlawful.  As Stevens rightly observed, “it’s also not surprising that if you’re putting people in a warehouse, the occupants become inventory. Inventory does not need showers, beds, drinking water, soap, toothbrushes, sanitary napkins, mail, attorneys or legal information, and can withstand the constant blast of cold air.”

According to Ahilan Arulanantham, Director of Immigrant Rights for the ACLU of Southern California, the Los Angeles subfield office called B-18 is a barely converted storage space. “You actually walk down the sidewalk and into an underground parking lot. Then you turn right, open a big door and voilà, you’re in a detention center…It’s not clear to me how anyone would find it. What this breeds, not surprisingly, is a whole host of problems concerning access to phones, relatives and counsel,” he explained.

While the President Obama may have released a memorandum in January requiring transparency for the heads of all executive departments and agencies, including DHS and ICE, the reality is it’s not happening. Instead we have agents, like Tommy Kilbride, an ICE detention and removal officer and star of A&E’s reality show Manhunters: Fugitive Task Force, operating out of a hidden office in a hip building in Chelsea Market alongside Rachel Ray and the Food Network, sporting a jacket that says POLICE, while rounding up criminal aliens, thereby glamorizing secret operations as the trappings of pop culture.

If indeed “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” as Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, I say let the sun shine on these ICE castles, so we can restore fairness in America.  A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.

Photo courtesy of State without Borders

Government report verifies claims of lack of fairness for immigration detainees

immigrant-detention-480x329In August 2008, 33 year old Alexandro Sibaja was picked up in Houston on a bad check warrant and turned over to immigration officials. Having moved to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 12, Sibaja was put into removal proceedings by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Over the next 15 months, he was transferred six times from Houston to Conroe, from Conroe to Mississippi, then back to Houston before being transferred to Amarillo and then to Big Spring. Eventually, he ended up in Haskell, Texas, and his case was assigned to the immigration court in Dallas. On November 25th, the immigration judge granted him a green card based on his seven-year long marriage to Lopez-Sibaja, a U.S. citizen, and the trauma that deportation would cause for his two children.

While the judgment came as a huge relief to Alexandro and his wife, the ordeal of the past 15 months is one that will haunt them for some time to come. By the end of the 15 months, Alexandro’s wife, Iris, barely visited him once every two months because she could not afford to drive seven hours to see him while working and looking after their children. Iris spent a large part of the past year trying to keep track of her husband’s whereabouts through the immigration detention network, since the information provided to her accompanying his transfers was patchy and inconsistent. Alexandro’s frequent transfers had the decided effect of delaying his proceedings. His original attorney, Steven Villarreal, had to stop representing him when he was transferred since it would have been too expensive once he factored in the costs of the flights and hotels. “I had to refer him to another attorney up there…This happens all the time,” Villareal said about the transfers.

Alexandro’s case is symptomatic of the gaping flaws in the detainee transfer system that were highlighted in separate reports brought out last Wednesday. In addition to the reports by the non-profit group, Human Rights Watch and the data analyzed by TRAC (discussed last week on Restore Fairness), The Constitution Project published a review of ICE policy entitled, ‘Recommendations for Reforming our Immigration System and Promoting Access to Counsel in Immigration Proceedings‘. These findings were corroborated by an investigation that was carried out by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the Department of Homeland Security, and released in a document called ‘Policies and Procedures Related to Detainee Transfers‘.

The objective of the OIG investigation was to determine “whether ICE detention officers properly justify detainee transfers according to ICE’s standards,” and their findings verify the criticisms of the system offered by the other reports. The OIG found that the detainee transfer procedures regularly failed to comply with the tenets of the ICE National Detention Standards; they were random, they resulted in a loss of access to necessary evidence and witnesses, and to legal counsel itself, and in increased time spent in detention. Further, most people were transferred without the requisite photo and security classification. From the report:

Transfer determinations made by ICE officers at the detention facilities are not conducted according to a consistent process. This leads to errors, delays, and confusion for detainees, their families, and legal representatives…ICE National Detention Standards outline the policy, applicability, standards, and procedures for the transfer of a detainee. ICE must consider the detainee’s security requirements, medical needs, legal representation, and requests for a change in venue for the removal proceeding.

Responding to the delays, confusion and errors caused by the numerous transfers of detainees, not to mention the resultant denial of due process for the detained and their families, the OIG review and that drafted by The Constitution Project list a series of recommendations for corrective action to be taking by ICE. The recommendations outlined by the OIG address the disjointed network of private and county detention centers and the lack of a clear and centralized system of communication between them. They require ICE to establish:

A national standard for reviewing each detainee’s administrative file prior to a transfer determination, and that it develop protocols with EOIR (Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review) court administrators for exchanging hearing and transfer schedules.

The Constitution Project issued a review that called for large-scale amendments to immigration law and ICE policy, including access to legal counsel appointed by the government for those facing deportation. The Constitution Project, whose members include Asa Hutchinson, a former secretary of Homeland Security, called for measures that lead to shrinking the use of detention, making it easier for people to avoid detention while fighting deportation. According to the New York Times, the Constitution Project:

recommended a significant easing in the burden of proof, and a hardship waiver from mandatory detention for lawful permanent residents…Mr. Hutchinson said that the immigration agency could make many other changes immediately, including some that would “correct some potential unfairness in the system” unintentionally left by his own efforts when he was in office.

ICE responded with a statement on Wednesday announcing that they are in the process of overhauling the immigration detention system, and will work to reduce the number of detainee transfers. Working towards a “truly civil detention system” with more centralized agency control, the agency promised a re-issuing of the National Detention Standards that would require a review of the detainee’s file prior to a transfer, ensuring a more efficient and human approach to immigration detention.

Photo courtesy of

New reports from Human Rights Watch and TRAC shed light on the shocking trend of detainee transfers

Line of DetaineesIn recent years, a sharp rise in the number of non-citizens held in immigration detention has been accompanied by their increased transfer between facilities, creating barriers they face in accessing counsel and receiving fair treatment in immigration proceedings. These are the findings by TRAC (Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse) and Human Rights Watch from data obtained by the Freedom of Information Act to be released today.

The number of individuals held in custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2009 is now estimated to have reached 369,483 detainees, more than twice the amount in 1999. As a result of this overcrowding, the past decade has witnessed an escalated increase in the “free-wheeling” transfers of detainees, often to less-crowded centers in remote areas, taking detainees miles away from their families and attorneys.

Based on data obtained from various sources by TRAC and 3.4 million records obtained by Human Rights Watch from ICE, TRAC has found:

An increasing proportion of all detainees are being transferred. In 1999, one out of every five (19.6%) detainees was moved from one detention facility to another. Compare that to the first six months of 2008 (the latest data available), where more than half of all detainees (52.4%) were transferred.

-There has been a vast growth in multiple transfers of individuals from one detention facility to another, where one starts at one detention facility, is transferred to a second, and then a third (and sometimes again and again). Ten years ago only one out of 20 detainees experienced multiple transfers (5.6%). But in 2008, that increased to one out of every four detainees (24%).

-The number of times that detainees are transferred now actually exceeds the total number of individual detainees. This surprising tipping point – more transfers than detainees – was reached for the first time during the first six months of 2008.

Similarly, Human Rights Watch reports that an astounding 1.4 million detainee transfers have occurred between 1999 and 2008. Most transfers are costly and chaotic, usually occurring without prior notice to family members of detainees. During these transfers, detainees are often taken miles away from their families and lawyers, breaking contact between them and their lawyers and delaying their proceedings. Immigration attorneys say that due to the transfers, they are constantly “losing their clients.” Besides the costs of these delays, ICE has spent more than 10 million dollars to transfer nearly 19,400 detainees in 2007 alone.

Speaking about their new report, “Locked Up Far Away: The Transfer of Immigrants to Remote Detention Centers in the United States”, Human Rights Watch says:

Human Rights Watch found that ICE is increasingly transferring detainees to remote detention centers as a response to overcrowding. Many immigrants are initially detained close to their attorneys and witnesses, in locations such as New York or Los Angeles, but are then transferred to detention centers in rural Texas or Louisiana…The transfers interfere with detainees’ rights to counsel, to defend against deportation, to present witnesses and other evidence, and to be free from arbitrary and prolonged detention.

TRAC has also released 1,393 individual facility-by-facility reports that analyze each detention facility’s transfer records over the last decade, and a free online tool where users can make a focused query about a specific detention facility. All of this is available as of noon today.

Photo courtesy