ST. PAUL, Minn. — As Somalia begins to emerge from years of turmoil, the war-torn nation’s newfound stability creates a downside for a small number of Somalis who have run afoul of the U.S. immigration system.
For years, Somali immigrants whom federal immigration authorities ordered deported had nowhere to go as there was no functioning government in Somalia to accept them. But in January, when the United States recognized the government in Somalia for the first time in more than 20 years, federal authorities quietly resumed deportations to Somalia.
The two countries have not restored full diplomatic relations. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement did receive enough cooperation last year to begin returning some detainees who have been convicted of serious crimes while in the United States. Immigration officials have so far deported 24 Somali nationals from Minnesota and other states.
There was no big announcement of the policy change, said Marc Prokosch, an immigration attorney in Bloomington, Minn. Instead, detainees learned they would be deported when they were taken into custody after showing up for their regular check-in with immigration, said Prokosch, chair of the Minnesota/Dakota chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“It seems that the first wave — if you wanted to call it ‘wave’ since there were only a handful — were people who would be seen as an ongoing threat to public safety, because of, for example the criminal sexual conduct convictions,” Prokosch said. “But we’ve been hearing of non-sexual crime convictions being taken into custody, for example, felony assault.”
Not all people with deportation orders have committed crimes. Some have been denied asylum. Prokosch said often those cases involve detainees who lack documents to prove their identities.
Because ICE has prosecutorial discretion, Prokosch said, if someone has been law-abiding for years and is raising a family, deportation could be postponed further.
People who have been ordered deported but don’t have a country to return to are given work permits and check in periodically with immigration authorities.
Deportations to Somalia have been fraught with problems for years. More than a decade ago, the group Advocates for Human Rights challenged the legality of returning people to a country without a functioning government. The repatriation techniques U.S. officials were using raised red flags, attorney Michele Garnett McKenzie said.
“We just can’t sort of airlift people in and parachute them in without the country’s permission,” Garnett McKenzie said. “That violates sovereignty and also more critically, it puts those people’s lives at risk,” Garnett McKenzie said.
The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the federal government did have the right to return the detainees. But after a costly and failed attempt to send back a detainee in 2005, the government put deportations to Somalia on hold.
While it may be difficult for someone to leave after many years, at least there is an orderly process now, Garnett McKenzie said.
“We hoped that the government of Somalia would form and stabilize and that human rights conditions would improve to the point that people could safety be returned, so people would not remain in limbo forever,” Garnett McKenzie said.
The stabilizing government in Somalia has not just affected detainees. Entrepreneurs and relatives from the Somali diaspora have taken advantage of the improved security situation to travel back to the country.
Ahmed Samatar, a professor of international studies at Macalester College, returned from Somalia in October after running for president there. Samatar said the resumption of deportations does not appear to be a big topic in Minnesota’s Somali community, perhaps because the number of people affected is quite small.
“Cases like that do happen but I think the vast majority of Somalis…are very, very busy with how to become successful people in the localities in which they’ve been received,” Samatar said.
ICE has not publicized its recent deportations or the criteria being used, although it is likely to be a topic at the next quarterly roundtable federal officials hold with the Somali community.