First ordered to leave the country 16 years ago, Abdulkadir Sharif Abdi was supposed to be deported from Minnesota to his native Somalia late last month. But the flight to Africa took off without him after an immigration judge agreed to take a fresh look at his case.

Abdi, a 39-year-old former Twin Cities gang member turned well-known sobriety mentor, remains in immigration detention. His case highlights an escalating tug-of-war over deportations to Somalia. As Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has stepped up deportations to the slowly rebuilding nation, local attorneys and immigrant advocates have redoubled efforts to push back.

Most of the 70 people scheduled to be deported on that March 29 flight did return to Somalia, even as attorneys said some were abused in a Texas detention facility. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., wrote the administration Tuesday demanding an investigation and the return of deportees so they can help with an inquiry and sue ICE if claims are deemed credible.

But lawyers have had some success in cases like Abdi's, in which they argue clients with criminal convictions have redeemed themselves since long-ago deportation orders were issued. Colleagues at an addiction treatment center and others Abdi supported in their recovery packed a Twin Cities immigration courtroom last week.

"I was young, dumb and a drunk," Abdi said, referring to the time he was ordered deported in 2002. "I've changed, and I've grown."

These legal efforts have drawn criticism from advocates of tougher immigration enforcement, who say they delay and interfere with the removals of immigrants who have already had their day in court.

ICE said about two-thirds of the 69 Somalis on the March deportation flight, which included other African detainees, had criminal convictions, including for sexual assault and armed robbery. The remainder had unsuccessfully applied for asylum.

It was the first deportation mission to Somalia since a botched effort in December, when 92 deportees returned to the United States after spending 20 hours on a runway in Senegal.

A life of recovery

Abdi came to the United States as a teenage refugee, rejoining an older sister and quickly dropping out of high school. In media accounts and community speeches, Abdi has offered an unvarnished account of his gun-toting, drug-dealing days as a gang enforcer nicknamed "Chino."

After a felony car theft conviction and a year in jail, he received a final deportation order in 2002, a time when the United States was not sending people back to his war-torn homeland. He went on to get another felony conviction for receiving stolen property and three convictions for drunken driving. In 2007, a rival gang member stabbed Abdi in the neck, damaging his vocal cords and almost killing him. After a lengthy hospital stay, Abdi resolved to leave the gang life.

For the past four years he has worked as a housing manager at the Park Avenue Center, a Minneapolis alcohol and drug treatment facility. He and his wife, Rhoda Christenson, are also active in the local recovery community. Abdi's sobriety sponsor and others credit him with encouraging Somali-Americans to join recovery programs, dispelling the misconception that such programs are not for practicing Muslims.

He and Christenson often invited acquaintances struggling with sobriety into their home. She says many Somali parents enlisted Abdi to intervene with children they feared might join a gang.

"The chance to live a life of recovery is something he felt he had to pay back," Christenson said.

Abdi had been checking in with immigration authorities for years. At his January check-in, he was detained. Deportations to Somalia had resumed and picked up under President Barack Obama; they increased significantly under President Donald Trump, to more than 520 during the most recent fiscal year.

In December, these deportations became international news after the chartered ICE flight returned to Florida with its passengers, including at least two dozen from Minnesota. A federal judge in Miami has temporarily blocked the deportations of those detainees, who alleged physical abuse on the flight and more recently at a Florida detention facility.

Attorneys in Minnesota and Florida are applying to reopen the detainees' cases, pointing to a recent escalation in terror attacks in Somalia. About 20 of 92 Somalis on the December flight asked to pull out of the lawsuit and return to Africa. But lawyers are starting to see immigration courts and an appeals board revisit some of the remaining plaintiffs' cases, said Michele McKenzie of the Advocates for Human Rights, a Minneapolis nonprofit.

McKenzie and other immigrant activists and attorneys also sprang to action when news came back in February that ICE was gearing up to deport a new group of Somali detainees held in Texas.

Minneapolis attorney Malee Ketelsen-Renner, working pro bono, enlisted colleagues in Texas to interview African detainees, including Abdi, about alleged physical assaults by guards and arbitrary use of pepper spray and solitary confinement at the for-profit West Texas Detention Center. Attorneys at the University of Texas and elsewhere filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, arguing that detainees should stay during an investigation.

Reopening some cases

Meanwhile, lawyers such as Abdi's attorney, John Bruning, were working to block the deportations of individual clients. The Twin Cities immigration court agreed to reopen Abdi's case after Bruning argued that Abdi's criticism of the militant group Al-Shabab and its efforts to recruit locally could make him a target in Somalia.

In a letter to attorneys, an ICE official said the agency would honor any stays they had secured for clients. The remainder, who had exhausted their legal options, would be sent back. In a statement, ICE said it takes allegations of abuse seriously and has an aggressive inspections program to ensure all facilities meet standards.

Bruning believes Abdi is eligible for "withholding of removal," granted to immigrants who have legitimate fears of returning home but don't qualify for asylum. Unlike asylum, such a ruling does not open a path to citizenship.

Almost 40 people wrote letters in support of Abdi's bid to stay, calling him a "beacon in the recovery community." Mark Casagrande, Abdi's boss at Park Avenue, rescheduled an all-staff meeting so he and other employees could attend an immigration court hearing last week.

"Abdi is so loyal, so dedicated, so grateful for the life he has been given in America," Casagrande said. "He is exactly the kind of person we want as a citizen."

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781