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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.

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