exposing the dark side of adoption
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A man the U.S. didn't want

Native son lost in web of errors


The U.S. government admitted in April that it had wrongly deported a North Carolina 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, N.C.

None of this stopped them from leaving Lyttle, a mentally ill American who speaks no Spanish, alone and penniless in a country to which he has no ties.

Lyttle's 350-page federal Department of Homeland Security file, released to The News & Observer, shows that the government deported him entirely on the basis of 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, more than 18,000 of them from a three-state region that includes North Carolina.

As the number of deportations swells each year, it is straining the nation's immigration investigators and courts -- and raising questions about the rights afforded to immigration detainees, many of whom have no lawyers.

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's file, however, gives a deeper look into their investigation.

In his own words

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. Lyttle's family members confirm they were not contacted.

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 yet provide a response.

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.

kristin.collins@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4881

Path to deportation

Aug. 22, 2008: Mark Lyttle enters a North Carolina prison after a conviction for assault on a female.

Sept. 2, 2008: Lyttle meets with a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and signs a statement saying he was born in Mexico.

Sept. 5, 2008: The U.S. government begins deportation proceedings against Lyttle.

Oct. 26, 2008: Lyttle is released from a North Carolina prison and sent to Stewart Detention Center, a federal facility in Georgia.

Nov. 3, 2008: Lyttle meets with an immigration agent and says he is a U.S. citizen from North Carolina.

Nov. 12, 2008: Lyttle meets with another immigration agent and again swears he is from Mexico.

Dec. 9, 2008: An immigration judge signs an order deporting Lyttle to Mexico.

Dec. 18, 2008: Lyttle is flown to Mexico.

Dec. 29, 2008: Lyttle returns to the U.S. border and is deported again within hours.

April 19, 2009: Lyttle arrives at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala.

April 20, 2009: The embassy confirms Lyttle's citizenship and issues him a U.S. passport

April 22, 2009: Lyttle flies to Atlanta and is detained by immigration agents, who think his passport is false and prepare to deport him again.

April 24, 2009: Lyttle is released from immigration custody, after intervention by a lawyer.

April 27, 2009: The judge vacates Lyttle's deportation order at ICE's request

2009 Aug 30