The ACLU is accusing immigration authorities of disregarding the rights of the mentally ill in a lawsuit filed Wednesday alleging Immigration and Customs Enforcement wrongfully deported a U.S. citizen to Mexico. The man, Mark Lyttle, spoke no Spanish and is actually of Puerto Rican descent, but reportedly caught the attention of ICE when he told prison officials he was born in Mexico. Although Lyttle provided ICE with his Social Security number and the names of his parents, his lawyers claim immigration officials manipulated him into eventually signing documents that allowed him to be deported.

The ACLU says Lyttle’s story is one of many instances of the detention system failing to provide additional aid for mentally ill detainees, who it says can often sign away their rights without realizing what they are doing.

Human rights organizations argue that abuses within the immigration detention system are particularly difficult to track because victims are eventually deported and have little access to legal aid.

The ACLU is suing on Lyttle’s behalf for damages after he allegedly spent four months living on the streets in Mexico and Central America before eventually returning to United States. The AP summarized his case:

Immigration agents “coerced and manipulated” Lyttle more than once into signing false statements saying he was a citizen of Mexico and agreed to be deported, the suit says.

The lawsuit contends the agents searched databases on Lyttle’s criminal history and repeatedly came up with records showing his Social Security number. …

In October 2008, Lyttle was sent to an immigration detention facility in south Georgia and interviewed by another agent. That interrogation form “accurately reflected that Mr. Lyttle was ‘a native of United States and a citizen of United States,’” but the agent still said Lyttle could be deported because of criminal convictions.

An immigration judge ordered Lyttle deported in December 2008 without letting him present evidence or deny he was Mexican, the lawsuit says.

His lawyers say Lyttle was then flown to Texas and “forced to disembark and sent off on foot into Mexico, still wearing the prison-issued jumpsuit.”

A spokesman for the Department of Justice told the AP the government would respond in court, while ICE and Department of Homeland Security spokesmen declined to comment.

What should ICE do to better handle mentally ill detainees, according to the ACLU? First of all, the organization wants mandatory counsel for all detainees with mental disabilities. Immigrant detainees are not automatically provided counsel because deportation is a civil action, not a criminal one. While there are pro bono immigration lawyers, many detainees do not know how to access them or are housed too far away from pro bono clinics, according to human rights groups.

ICE is in the midst of an overhaul of its detention system, but the ACLU and other groups have charged that it is moving too slowly.

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