Mark Lyttle expected to return home after serving a few months in prison for inappropriately touching a woman's backside.
Instead, he says, the U.S. government deported him to Mexico, Mexican officials deported him to Honduras, and Honduras deported him to Guatemala - even though he is a North Carolina-born U.S. citizen who speaks no Spanish.
U.S. immigration officials confirmed this week that they wrongly deported Lyttle, 31, who his family says is mentally ill and suffers from mild retardation, in December after finding him in a North Carolina prison. He and his lawyer say he spent four months bouncing among Latin American prisons and homeless shelters before ending up this month at a U.S. embassy in Guatemala, where officials confirmed his citizenship.
Lyttle returned to his family on Friday, but only after immigration officials at the Atlanta airport tried to deport him again. He said that, throughout the process, federal agents repeatedly ignored his assurances that he was a U.S. citizen and native of Rowan County, about 125 miles southwest of the Triangle.
"I said, 'All I know is the United States.' I said, 'I was born here in Rowan County,'" said Lyttle, who is now staying with his brother in Kentucky. "They just totally ignored it."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said that before they deported Lyttle, he gave them two sworn statements in which he said he was a Mexican named Jose Thomas. But ICE officials also said Lyttle made other, conflicting sworn statements in which he used his true name and claimed U.S. citizenship.
Agency spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez declined to release copies of the statements.
"It's never the U.S. government's intention to detain an American citizen," Gonzalez said Wednesday. "But clearly in this case, Mr. Lyttle stated that he was a national of Mexico."
Lyttle's lawyer, Neil Rambana of Tallahassee, Fla., said that Lyttle had no identification but that federal officials could have contacted his family or checked his Social Security number, which he can recite from memory.
"A simple phone call could have helped this person who has a mental condition," Rambana said.
The affair began at Neuse Correctional Institution in Wayne County, where Lyttle was serving a sentence for assault on a female.
Lyttle was adopted at 7 years old after being removed from an abusive home, his family says. He has a dark complexion because his father was part Puerto Rican.
He is bipolar and has suffered from behavioral problems most of his life, his family says, and had recently spent time at Cherry Hospital, a state mental institution. He says he was charged with the crime while living in a halfway house in Jacksonville.
When he was admitted to prison in August, state prison officials say, Lyttle reported being born in Mexico. Keith Acree, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Correction, said the state has an agreement with ICE that requires the prisons to report all inmates who say they were born in other countries.
An ICE agent interviewed Lyttle on Sept. 2, and Lyttle signed a statement that day saying he was Jose Thomas, a Mexican citizen who entered the U.S. when he was 3 years old, Gonzalez said.
Lyttle said in a telephone interview that he did not claim to be Mexican and had never heard the name Jose Thomas before the ICE agent said it to him. He says he gave ICE agents the names of his mother and two brothers, who are in the Army, and his Social Security number.
As soon as Lyttle's prison term ended in October, ICE took him to a federal detention center in Atlanta, state prison officials said.
There, Lyttle said, officials told him he could spend up to two years in prison if he did not agree to be deported to Mexico. He eventually agreed, and immigration judge William Cassidy ordered him out of the country despite his protests in court that he was a U.S. citizen, Lyttle said.
"I did what I had to to get out of there because there was no other way," Lyttle said.
Just before Christmas, immigration officials flew him to Reynosa, Mexico, removed his handcuffs and sent him off on foot. Lyttle had no food, money or spare clothes. On Dec. 29, he tried to come back over the border at Hidalgo, Texas. He was again deported to Mexico, immigration officials say.
Not a unique case
Jacqueline Stevens, a political science professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, said she has been researching wrongful deportations for the past year. She said she has found at least 34 U.S. citizens who have been deported since 2003.
Stevens said Lyttle's case is similar to several others in that ICE relied on his statements and never investigated his citizenship. "They could have looked up his information, but they didn't, and that's not just in Mark's case but in all cases," Stevens said.
Gonzalez said federal judges are responsible for determining whether there is enough evidence to deport people. In Lyttle's case, she said, "We carried out the order as issued by a judge."
Lyttle said he didn't know how to contact his family or get copies of his birth certificate.
His mother had moved during his prison term, and he didn't have her address or phone number. His two brothers were in the military, and he couldn't remember where they were stationed.
In Mexico, Lyttle says, he found a homeless shelter and occasional construction work. Eventually, missionaries dropped him in Mexico City, where he hoped to find a U.S. embassy.
Instead, he says, he was picked up by Mexican immigration authorities, who imprisoned him and then sent him on a bus to Honduras. Many Hondurans come illegally to Mexico en route to the United States.
In Honduras, Lyttle says, he was again picked up by immigration authorities and kept in jail for month with gangsters and drunks, given little food and never allowed to shower.
Eventually, he says, he was put on a van that stopped in Nicaragua and then dropped him in a small town in Guatemala, where he spent a night in the street. In the morning, he found a police station, and officers took him to a U.S. embassy in Guatemala City.
Along the way, Lyttle says, he told everyone he came in contact with the names of his mother and two brothers. The embassy officials were the first to try and track them down.
They found his brother, Thomas Lyttle, at his home near Fort Campbell, in Kentucky, last week. Thomas Lyttle said his brother came on the line and said, "Tommy, you've got to get me out of here."
Gonzalez confirmed that Lyttle returned to Atlanta from Guatemala last week. At the airport, customs agents found records of his previous deportations and tried to deport him again, Gonzalez said. He was released after two days, when they confirmed that he was a U.S. citizen.
Gonzalez said ICE is correcting Lyttle's record.
A family's long search
When the call came from Guatemala, Lyttle's family had been hunting him for months.
His mother, Jeanne Lyttle, who lives in Georgia, said North Carolina prison officials told her only that Mark had been released. She had no idea he had been deported.
She said Mark spent years in mental hospitals and halfway houses, and never held a full-time job, and she thought that perhaps he had gone off with a woman or ended up imprisoned. She and her sons did Internet searches and called mental hospitals and prisons.
"I can't believe that this could even happen," she said of his deportation. "It's absurd."
Now, the family is consulting with its lawyer and seeking compensation from the government. They say that they spent more than $1,500 to fly Mark back from Guatemala and that Mark didn't get his federal disability payments after being declared an alien.
Mark Lyttle says he is staying with his brother because he is afraid to return to North Carolina.
"I know I can't trust my own country now," he said. "They humiliated me."