Somali immigrants with criminal records, many of whom came to the U.S. to escape an ongoing bloody civil war, are now facing the threat of deportation for the first time in a decade. Though Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has formally refrained from deporting people back to war-torn Somalia for about a decade, the policy was quietly changed last year. According to a report by the Minnesota Star Tribune, 33 Somalis have been deported since 2012.
More than 3,100 Somalis have received deportation orders since 2001. But because Somalia had no functioning government to receive them, the detainees were given work permits and checked in regularly with immigration authorities. According to Minnesota Public Radio, these immigrants were not told that they were suddenly eligible for deportation again until they were arrested at their normal check-in.
Many deportees have criminal records — the first wave of deportations last year was comprised of sex offenders — but others are simply undocumented or were denied asylum. Most came to the U.S. as infants, part of the wave of 100,000 Somali refugees who fled to the U.S. after the country descended into chaos in 1991.
In 2003, a federal judge ruled that deportations to Somalia were illegal, as there was no functioning government to accept deportees. But the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, ruling 5 to 4 that immigrants could still be deported to Somalia even without a recognized government in place. Three months after the ruling, ICE tried and failed miserably to deport Minnesota detaineee Keyse Jama by hiring a private jet to dump him in a Somali airport. Jama, who had no passport, was rejected at gunpoint and flown back to his home in Minneapolis. The debacle cost at least $200,000 and prompted ICE to suspend Somali deportations.
Still, some rare deportations trickled out. One man, abruptly deported in 2006 for a 1989 charge of owning an unlicensed gun, was almost immediately accused of being an American spy by Islamic militants upon his arrival in Mogadishu. He left behind a young daughter in Harlem.
Though Somalia is slightly more stable than it was in 2006, similar fates likely await new deportees. Islamic militants will often target anyone who has spent significant time in America or other western countries. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), whose district is heavily Somali, told the Star Tribune he was concerned about the deportations in light of the recent revival of Somali jihadi group al-Shabaab, which launched a deadly attack on a Kenyan mall this weekend. And just last month, Doctors Without Borders announced it would abandon Somalia due to constant attacks on staff members.
The question remains: why now? In January, the U.S. government recognized the Somali government for the first time in 22 years, but deportations were accelerating even before this diplomatic landmark. ICE has not explained what turn of events prompted the decision that Somalia was no longer too dangerous for deportees, merely telling the Star Tribune that it uses “prosecutorial discretion” to decide whether a country is safe for deportees.
Human rights groups are suspicious about the extent to which humanitarian considerations factor in to ICE proceedings. The agency has, for example, ignored repeated calls to halt deportations to Haiti, sending planes of immigrants just one year after the 2010 earthquake left the island in shambles. At least one known U.S. deportee fell prey to the rampant cholera epidemic and died soon after he landed. Countless other immigrants who are either LGBT, politically compromised, or seriously ill have been deported to face near-certain death in their native countries.