For Somalis who have broken the law, deportation to a volatile homeland is now a real possibility.
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?”
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.