The pace of deportations to Somalia is picking up fast — and setting local natives of the East African country on edge.
Eight months into the fiscal year, deportations to Somalia have already outpaced last year’s record-setting numbers. Nationally, more than 260 people were deported to Somalia since October — mostly Somalis who sought asylum unsuccessfully, but also some permanent U.S. residents with criminal convictions.
Alarmed community members grilled the Somali ambassador on a recent visit to the Twin Cities. Minnesota’s DFL congressional delegation in May wrote the Trump administration questioning the removals to a country grappling with famine and threats by the terror group Al-Shabab.
“These realities cause great concern for the decision to deport so many Somalis to a situation where they would face imminent risk and danger,” the letter said.
But some administration supporters have lauded its effort to pressure Somalia and other “recalcitrant” countries to accept more deportees. At the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates limiting immigration, fellow Jessica Vaughan says the U.S. must put its citizens’ safety first. Otherwise, she says, “We are stuck with people who are no longer eligible to remain in this country because conditions in their own countries remain poor.”
Somali deportations began increasing under President Barack Obama, and they have kept up as President Donald Trump took office with promises to step up immigration enforcement. Improved cooperation by Somalia appears to be a key factor. The country was on the Obama administration’s list of nations that didn’t play ball with U.S. immigration authorities, but it vanished from the new administration’s list released in May.
From 30 to 260 in five years
The 260 people deported to Somalia through May 6 compare to 198 for the entire 2016 fiscal year and about 30 five years ago, when the U.S. government began to more readily repatriate Somalis to the war-torn country. The 2017 number includes 80 people deported through the St. Paul office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which also covers the Dakotas, Nebraska and Iowa.
Both nationally and locally, about a quarter of deportees had criminal convictions, according to data from ICE. More than 4,830 Somalis in the United States have pending final orders of deportation, including about 300 in the states covered by the St. Paul ICE office.
The Embassy of Somalia in Washington, D.C., which reopened in 2015, has demanded letters from deportees saying they agree to go back before its staff will issue travel documents. Its home page features a release about the 90 people deported on a January chartered flight; it says they signed statements that affirm “their full consent to be returned to Somalia.”
Attorneys and community leaders say some Somalis with legal troubles have signed the statements in hopes of getting a fresh start in Africa. Others face lengthy stays in immigration detention in the U.S. Late last year, a Somali man called attorney Marc Prokosch after six months in detention to ask, “What can I do to have them just send me back?”
But last month, a Somali man was deported after refusing to sign, says his attorney, Bruce Nestor. In court documents challenging the man’s detention, Nestor argued that the U.S. government was pressuring his client into making a false statement.
The Somali embassy did not respond to requests for an interview. But community members who attended a recent meeting with Ambassador Ahmed Isse Awad said he argued that Somalia has an obligation to take its citizens back — at least those who go willingly.
“People were very mad, and they were asking him harsh questions,” said Amiin Harun, a Somali-American lawyer. “He said, ‘We are not forcing anybody to be sent back.’ ”
Kamal Hassan, founder of the nonprofit Somali Human Rights Commission, pleaded with the ambassador not to issue travel documents for his nephew and others facing deportation. Hassan says the young man traveled to South America and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally after the murder of his father, a leader in Somalia’s Sufi religious minority targeted by Al-Shabab. After a lengthy detention, his asylum application and an appeal were rejected.
“You know Somalia is not safe,” Hassan says he told the ambassador. “Why are you lying that it is safe and sending people in harm’s way?”
Hassan said his nephew has been deported, without signing a statement agreeing to go.
ICE referred all questions about the embassy’s practices to the ambassador.
More fleeing to Canada
Attorneys such as Harun are fielding more questions about the deportations, even from green card holders and citizens. The increase in removals, among other factors, has spurred a rise in illegal crossings into Canada by Somali asylum seekers.
Prokosch says he doesn’t advise his clients to sneak into Canada — but, he says, “In certain circumstances I would probably say, ‘Staying isn’t going to help you,’ and let them read between the lines.”
In their letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, all Democratic U.S. senators and representatives from Minnesota said the deportations could undermine the Somali community’s efforts to counter radical recruitment by feeding an Al-Shabab narrative that “Somalis are unwelcome and unwanted in America.”
Making good on promise
Getting foreign countries to cooperate on deportations was a key campaign pledge for Trump, who lambasted Obama for letting countries block removals. A Supreme Court decision required the release of most immigrants from immigration detention after 180 days if they are unlikely to be deported soon, and some with criminal records have gone on to commit more crimes. In 2011, a Somali national from Eagan, released after serving a sentence for a stabbing, shot and killed four people in North Dakota.
Since taking over, the Trump administration has run into the complexities of forcing countries to take deportees; news reports show that criminals whose home countries won’t accept them continue to be released. But, says Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, the administration’s willingness to impose visa sanctions on uncooperative countries is having an effect.
“Countries don’t want to put foreign aid and the ability of their citizens to travel to the U.S. at risk,” she said.
Iraq’s promise to start cooperating on deportees was a key reason that country stayed off Trump’s revised executive order pausing travel from some Muslim-majority countries, senior administration officials said. Whether the other six countries, including Somalia, remain on a list for “extreme vetting” will depend on their willingness to accept their deportees, officials said.
Meanwhile, Minnesota state Rep. Ilhan Omar recently launched an online petition urging Trump to hold off on deportations as Somalia struggles with drought and famine. Omar Jamal, a community leader, points to the killing last month of a U.S. Navy SEAL in Somalia as evidence the country remains caught up in violence.
“If someone breaks the laws of this country … so be it,” he said. “But we hope they will look at the bigger picture.”
Some are concerned about young people who came to the U.S. as children of refugees — and have little clue how to navigate their parents’ homeland.
“You’re just setting them up to go to a different world they don’t belong to,” said Mohamud Noor of the nonprofit Confederation of Somali Community, who gave character references for several men fighting their deportations.