A Miami federal judge on Tuesday stayed the removal of dozens of Somali nationals who were to be deported earlier this month.
The Dec. 7 flight returned to the U.S. after a stop in Senegal due to “logistical concerns.” At least one of the Somalis on board had lived in Louisville.
A lawsuit filed this week claims that detainees were treated inhumanely on the flight. That includes reports of detainees being kicked, choked and put in straitjackets by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. The suit says for nearly two days, detainees were handcuffed and their feet shackled. It also says that detainees had to relieve themselves in bottles or on themselves.
The plane sat at the airport in Senegal for 23 hours before being sent back to the U.S. Salim Muya from Louisville said he was shoved by ICE officials while aboard the flight. He said not knowing when he will be deported is upsetting.
“It’s stressful, scary and we’re afraid we’re going to get killed [in Somalia],” he said on a video call this week from Glades County Detention Center in Florida.
In an emailed statement, ICE officials said that in general, detainees are restrained for safety and security. ICE also said that there were no altercations on the December flight.
“The allegations of ICE mistreatment on board the Somali flight are categorically false. No one was injured during the flight, and there were no incidents or altercations that would have caused injuries on the flight,” the statement said.
Rebecca Sharpless is a professor and immigration clinic director of the University of Miami School of Law. She’s one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit.
“For the government to come out and say categorically there were no altercations or incidents on the flight is really shocking,” she said. “These individuals were shackled for two days. And forced to stay in a seated position for two days. By any definition that is inhumane.”
John Bruning is an immigration lawyer in Minnesota. His office, Kim Hunter Law PLLC, represents several clients in the suit.
“ICE is clearly not being forthcoming on what happened,” he said.
Bruning points to what he said is a lack of transparency on why the plane returned to the United States in the first place. It’s still unclear why the plane was rerouted upon landing in Dakar, Senegal.
ICE said the relief crew was unable to get sufficient rest due to issues at their hotel. Bruning said detainees on the flight said they were told there was a mechanical failure.
The treatment of the detainees aboard the flight is not the only concern. Because of the sweeping media coverage of the redirected plane, lawyers for the 92 detainees argue their clients are in danger of being targeted by the extremist group al-Shabaab.
“To me it’s a contradiction why the United States would choose now to start rounding people up and sending people back to Somalia,” said Sharpless.“The U.S. has not deemed it a safe place.”
The U.S. Department of State has issued a warning for citizens to avoid travel to Somalia due to “widespread terrorist and criminal activity.”
“Militants associated with both the al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist group, al-Shabaab, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) operate with relative impunity throughout large parts of the country, including Mogadishu, and attack civilian, military, and government targets. U.S. citizens should be aware that kidnapping, bombings, murder, illegal roadblocks and other violent incidents are common throughout Somalia, including Somaliland. There is no U.S. embassy presence in Somalia,” the warning reads, in part.
In October, a truck explosion killed more than 500 people in Mogadishu. Somalia’s government blamed the extremist group for the attack.
“Many of the people on this flight have been living in the United States for a long time and are Westernized,” said Sharpless.
Somali deportations rose to 521 in fiscal year 2017. Deportations totaled 198 the previous year. The top destination for deportations is Mexico with 128,765 deportations in fiscal year 2017. That number dropped from 149,821 the previous year.
NPR has reported that border patrol arrests have decreased, while immigration arrests in the interior have increased by 25 percent.
Bruning said because many deportees have been in the United States for a long time, they do not have family, money or a place to stay when they’re returned to their native country.
“One of the things that happens is when someone is sent back, they’re effectively homeless,” said Bruning. Some deported Somalis, he said, may try to enter a neighboring country such as Kenya. Others may return to internally displaced camps within Somalia, which essentially would again make them refugees.
“Practically speaking, that’s terrible,” he said. “But it also runs afoul of the principles of international law around the protection of refugees and asylees.”
All parties are scheduled to appear in federal court in January.