First chartered flight of Somali deportees in years sent this week
For the first time since its government collapsed decades ago, Somalia received a chartered flight full of deportees from the United States this week, according to Ahmed Awad, Somali ambassador to the U.S.
The flight contained a combination of Somali green card holders who committed crimes and asylum seekers who lost their cases in immigration court, according to the ambassador. The decision is not one of the new administration’s, he said. The process started under former President Barack Obama.
The U.S. had been sending two or three people back each month by commercial flights with the help of the embassy since last summer, Awad said, but then several months ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement approached the year-old embassy about getting travel documents for a plane-full of Somalis.
“We are legally bound to produce the documents, but I would have appealed for these people to not be returned because of the danger that may occur to them by Al-Shabaab,” Awad said in a phone interview.
Somalia’s government collapsed in 1991, according to the U.S. State Department, and the country has been plagued by Al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization aligned with Al-Qaeda, according to the National Counterterrorism Center.
Two Kenyan nationals and 90 Somali nationals were on this week’s flight, according to ICE officials. It landed first in Nairobi, Kenya, where the U.S. ambassador to Somalia is based for safety reasons. The Somalis were then put on another flight to Mogadishu.
“Our borders are not open to illegal migration,” an ICE official said. “If someone was apprehended at the border, has been ordered removed by an immigration court, has no pending appeal and does not qualify for asylum or other relief from removal under our laws, he or she must be sent home. We must and we will enforce the law in accordance with our enforcement priorities.”
The number of Somalis on the flight is almost half the number of Somalis deported in 2016, according to data from ICE. Just under 200 were deported that year, and 103 Somalis were deported in 2015.
For years, Somalis with deportation orders from U.S. immigration judges were unable to be returned because of conditions in their homeland. Generally, when people cannot be deported, ICE has to either document that they are a threat to public safety and continue to hold them, or release them under supervision.
Somalia has been working to reconstruct its government, and the U.S. formally recognized the new government in January 2013, according to the State Department, though the department still has a travel warning for the country.
The warning says, in 2016, there were 14 documented attacks on hotels, restaurants and the international airport in Mogadishu, where the chartered flight will land.
“Al-Shabaab has repeatedly attacked the Mogadishu Aden Adde International Airport with mortars and other weapons,” the warning says. “The group has conducted attacks from within the airport’s secure perimeter, and they detonated an explosive device hidden in a laptop on an airplane shortly after it took off from the airport on February 2, 2016.”
Al-Shabaab made another attack on a hotel in Mogadishu on Wednesday, reportedly killing 28 people, according to multiple news agencies.
The State Department travel warning also says that U.S. should avoid sailing near Somalia because of pirate attacks.
Awad made an agreement with ICE that the embassy would prioritize travel documents for those who submitted handwritten letters in Somalia saying they wanted to go back.
“Some of them are in danger if they go back,” Awad added. “It would have been too much of a burden for us to prove individual cases whether they’re at risk or not, but we do know some of them are at risk.”
He hoped the letter requirement might help keep those who are really in danger here in the U.S. for possible appeals or case reopenings.
Somalis seeking asylum frequently fly to Brazil and then use smugglers to help them reach Tijuana, where they come to either the San Ysidro or Otay Mesa ports of entry and ask for protection. Because of the increasing demands on detention facility space with recent surges in asylum seekers, many are eventually transferred to detention facilities around the country to await their fate.
Local immigration attorney Robin Carr said she worried that at least some on the flight had felt pressure to write and sign the letters.
She said she’d helped three of her Somali clients get off the list for the flight either through a court order or by showing the Somali embassy that the handwritten letter process hadn’t happened.
All three went through their asylum hearings without attorneys, and all three lost their cases. Statistics show that having an attorney can make a big difference in whether someone is granted asylum. Asylum grant rates also vary widely by judge and by immigration court location.
Carr is helping the three Somali asylum seekers reopen their cases.