The policy change affects more than 3,100 Somali nationals who have received final orders for removal from the United States since 2001, either because of violations of immigration law or criminal convictions. That includes 435 people who were ordered removed from the immigration court in Bloomington, representing 13 percent of all such Somali cases in the country’s 52 immigration courts.

Until recently, they had been allowed to remain in this country despite the removal orders, living in a legal limbo, wearing ankle bracelets or under requirements to check in periodically with authorities.

Now that’s changed.

Since 2012, 33 Somalis across the United States have been deported to Somalia, including 22 so far this year. Most have come from Minnesota, home to the nation’s largest Somali refugee community. Thirty Somalis remain in custody this month from the St. Paul region of the immigration service, faced with a pending or final deportation order.

One of them is Kamas Ahmed, who walked out of Stillwater prison and into the hands of U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement after serving a 19-month sentence for possessing stolen property and running from a police officer.

He last was in Somalia when he was an infant. Now 23, Ahmed says he has no family in his native country and barely understands the language. If he is deported, he is certain he would be targeted by Islamic militants or criminals and likely killed.

“I have no ties to Somalia,” he said in a recent interview at the Carver County jail, where he awaits word on when he will be deported. “I don’t speak the language. What am I going to do, call 911?”

‘Extremely unsafe’

The increased deportations have raised the thorny issue of whether it is proper to send offenders, many with admittedly lengthy criminal rap sheets, to an unstable country they don’t know and where many believe their presence will be tantamount to a death sentence.

What do you do with people who have no legal right to stay here, but nowhere safe to go?

“We still consider Somalia to be extremely unsafe,” said Deepinder Mayell, director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program for the Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights. “Even affiliation with western countries could be a threat. It makes them stick out. …. They could become subject to increased scrutiny or targeted as a victim.”

Often described as the world’s most dangerous failed state, Somalia has been in chaos since warlords brought down the central government in 1991. The fighting resulted in a massive flight of refugees, including more than 100,000 to the U.S. More than 32,000 Somalis live in Minnesota.

The renewed deportation comes as violence in Somalia threatens recent steps toward stability. In August, Doctors Without Borders announced it was shutting down in Somalia after years of attacks on its staff members. In July, the international humanitarian organization Human Rights Watch asked the Dutch government to stop plans to deport Somalis to any part of south-central Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu, until security improves.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, whose district includes a large segment of Minnesota’s Somali community, said he will be requesting a detailed briefing from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice on their guidelines for deportations to areas with potential safety concerns. Despite some gains in Somalia, he said he remains concerned about things such as recent asymmetrical attacks by the terrorist organization Al-Shabab.

Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) declined to make a representative available to discuss the renewed deportations.

In response to written questions, ICE said the agency found the situation improved in 2012 over the difficulties the agency had faced for years in repatriating Somalis. ICE said it routinely exercises what it calls “prosecutorial discretion” in deciding what countries are safe for deportation, including what it called humanitarian factors.

Advocates and immigration lawyers say they don’t know what might have changed to open up the deportation process, except for the possibility that a fledgling Somali central government might now be able to issue its own travel documents. Few of the deportees have reported back.

“If I had a female Somali with no criminal record, who entered illegally and got a deport order, I would tell her not to worry for quite some time,” said immigration attorney Marit Karbowski. “If somebody with an assault conviction comes in, I would tell them we should work hard on their case because they can’t just rest on the fact that Somalis don’t get deported anymore.”

Targeted, isolated

ICE would not discuss the process of returning detainees, citing concerns for the safety of its officers. But immigration lawyers and others say it’s likely ICE officers fly with a detainee to neighboring Kenya, where the detainee is turned over to a contractor for travel into Somalia. For safety reasons, it’s unlikely ICE officers actually cross into Somalia. In its statement, ICE would say only that “it works closely with foreign governments to coordinate the safe return of aliens to their respective countries.”

Sadik Warfa, a Somali community activist in Minneapolis, has been in contact with some deportees. He said they find themselves targeted and isolated.

“They were sent back to a country they left when they were toddlers,” he said. “Even the Somalis will suspect them. They don’t see them as Somalis. The country is very fragile. I would ask our American government not to deport.’’

Failed attempts

It’s not the first time that deportations to Somalia have raised concerns. In a previous challenge, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled the federal government had the right to return the detainees. But the United States suspended deportations to Somalia in 2005 after a failed attempt to send back Minnesota detainee Keyse Jama.

Some of those being deported have a slew of minor offenses and perhaps one felony conviction. On paper, few look like solid candidates to be given a second chance at life in the United States.

Besides his prison time, Kamas Ahmed’s criminal record includes convictions for disorderly conduct, fourth-degree assault and assorted liquor violations. He said he has admitted his mistakes and served his time. He said he should be allowed to await his fate with his American-born fiancée and the couple’s 2-year-old daughter. Instead, he has been in ICE custody since February.

“I consider myself as an American,” he said. “This is all I know.”

‘He made those choices’

Convicted sex offenders have made up the first wave of deportations because they are believed most likely to be a danger to public safety. Even advocates acknowledge they have been hard to defend.

“We can only do what the law allows us to do. If you have a conviction for a sexual offense we’re going to tell you not to waste your money on hiring us,” said Marc Prokosch, chairman of the Minnesota/Dakotas chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Ali Khalif Hasan, for instance, awaits his fate in the Sherburne County jail after serving time in South Dakota for raping a 12-year-old girl who ran away from home.

Minneapolis resident Kasim Bashir served time in prison for his part in the gang-style sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl in 1998. After his release he became a community activist in Minneapolis’ Somali community, coordinating a youth basketball league. He was deported last November.

In a 1998 court motion pleading for leniency, Bashir’s lawyer made an unusual argument.

“He will prefer to be deported, instead of going to prison. That is how afraid the defendant is of going to prison,” the motion said. “The defendant will accept deportation to his war-torn country, where there is a pronounced possibility that he will be killed as his father was.”

To Holly Zschokke, the mother of his victim, Bashir’s fate seems appropriate. Her daughter, who does not share her last name, is now 30 and continues to live with the trauma of the assault she endured.

“I think it’s very much justified,” she said of his deportation. “I worked at a job where I talked to a bunch of Somalis, and they said in their country, if he would have done that, he would have been killed. He made those choices so he has to live with the consequences.”