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ICE detainees describe beatings, other abuses

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Guards at an immigrant detention center in West Texas were spoiling for fights with their charges, heaping verbal abuse and threats on them and delivering beatings and using pepper spray indiscriminately, two men held at the facility said.

The West Texas Detention Facility in Sierra Blanca, which is operated by Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was criticized this week in a report by immigration rights groups. They’re asking the departments of Justice and Homeland Security to look into allegations that immigrants from Africa were physically assaulted, called racial slurs and denied medical care.

Guled Muhumed, a Somalia immigrant who said he came to the U.S. in 1996 when he was 9 years old, said he’s been in nine detention centers since he was arrested by ICE six months ago. But nowhere did he encounter the harsh and violent treatment he faced in the Sierra Blanca center, Muhumed said in a phone interview from another facility in Robstown.

“On the first or second day, one of the Somali guys was thrown on the floor. Another guy, he was jumped by four or five officers because he talked back to them,” Muhumed said. “The day that we were leaving, a guy in front of me who was shackled was beaten too, because he told them the handcuffs were too tight.”

“These officers at West Texas were anxious to do something to us. Anytime one of us speaks out, says something in the hallway, they would get in the person’s face and tell them be quiet, shut up,” he added. “You go there with your own eyes, you can see the officers, these are young officers, they look like they’re on steroids, they’re buff, big guys.”

The report released by the San Antonio-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, the Texas A&M School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic and the University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic is based on interviews with 30 Somali immigrants and alleges that, during a brief stay at the West Texas Detention Facility in late February and early March, about 80 men from Africa were subjected to brutal conditions.

In a statement, ICE said it “takes very seriously any allegations of misconduct or unsafe conditions.”

“ICE maintains a strict zero tolerance policy for any kind of abusive behavior and requires all staff working with the agency to adhere to this policy,” the statement reads. “All allegations are independently reviewed by ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility. ICE has not been made aware of any allegations prior to this initial reporting from RAICES.”

LaSalle Corrections did not respond to requests for comment.

Muhumed also described what he said was an indiscriminate use of pepper spray. On one occasion, guards sprayed dozens of people in a sleeping area because two detainees were fighting. On another occasion, he said, an ICE officer instigated a tense situation by insulting and cursing at the detainees.

The ICE officer left and detention center staff again filled the sleeping area with pepper spray while the detainees were menaced by Hudspeth County sheriff’s deputies with shotguns, Muhumed said. On both occasions, the guards were behind a gate that protected them from the detainees.

The Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

During the second pepper spray incident, Muhumed said, he tried to drag a man who was vomiting and struggling to breathe up to the gate so he could receive medical attention.

“When we brought him to the gate one of the officers cocked his shotgun right at me and one of the other guys, and one of the shells from the shotgun fell on the floor,” he said. “I didn’t understand what was the point of him doing that. His life was not in danger. None of the other officers … was in danger. The door was closed. It was locked.”

Abdilahih Mohamed, 36, also from Somalia, said he witnessed the pepper spray incidents as well.

“They did a whole lot of threatening and pushing and shoving around, enticing people to get aggressive and fight, but we never did anything to them,” he said “So when the Macing had started, the officers were definitely not threatened. This was just one of the captains and leaders of the jail trying to show his manhood.”

Mohamed said he was menaced by a guard, who threatened to gouge him with a key. After about a week in detention, as the shackled detainees were loaded onto a bus for transportation to another facility, a group of LaSalle employees stalked between the seats trying to goad the men into talking back and threatened them with a pepper spray canister, Mohamed said.

“When we went inside the bus, there was four or five six officers came onto the bus, screaming at us, saying, ‘Say something,’” he said. “They lifted up the guy’s glasses and held it right up to his eye and said, ‘Say something.’”

Immigrant rights advocates involved in the report said the abuses reported by detainees were extreme for immigration detention centers.

“These are very severe abuses even compared to the types of things I’ve seen in other detention centers in terms of the level of physical assault that we saw,” Fatma Marouf, a law professor and director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Texas A&M University, said during a Friday conference call with reporters. “Nearly half of the people we talked to have been assaulted by officers. And so that is quite extreme.”

The men are not being held because they’re charged with a crime, but because they are facing deportation, a civil court proceeding, said Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of San Antonio-based RAICES. Immigration detention centers are “not intended to be in any way a punitive environment,” Ryan said.

“It is expressly for the purpose of enforcing immigration laws, but what we’ve heard about here, what these individuals have suffered and seen is, it’s far beyond a punitive environment and into the territory of an outright criminal and persecutory one,” he said.

Convictions led to detention

Muhumed said about 30 Somalis were transferred in early March to the Coastal Bend Detention Center in South Texas. Initially the men were kept under tight security, apparently a result of reports from officials in Sierra Blanca, but after a few weeks without incident they’re under fewer restrictions, he said. They’re still only allowed one hour of exercise a day, Muhumed said.

He said his family fled Somalia’s civil war in the 1990s, eventually coming to the U.S. He was allowed to enter the country on a refugee visa, but never received a green card and was later convicted on drug charges and couldn’t become a citizen. Muhumed said he’s turned his life around and teaches at his mosque and helped found a program for teens in his Minnesota community to stay out of trouble.

He’s now married with a daughter who’s about to turn 2 years old and his wife is pregnant, Muhumed said. Last year, as he went to take his daughter to day care in the morning, he found ICE officers waiting outside his apartment. They took him into custody, and began shifting him around detention centers, apparently in preparation for deporting him to Somalia.

Mohamed said he came to the U.S. as a child as well. Many of his family members are now U.S. citizens, but Mohamed never naturalized and lost his green card after a drug possession conviction in 2009. He said he signed paperwork that he believed allowed him to stay in the U.S. as long as he regularly checked in with ICE, but almost a decade later is facing deportation.

He’s afraid of going back to Somalia, Mohamed said. Islamic militants target those who have lived in the U.S. and Europe and he’s heard stories about men with tattoos having an arm cut off. If he’s deported, Mohamed said, he’ll be leaving behind a wife and two children.

“I was working doing framing work, and they took my life away and brought me here, and now they’re taking me to a country where I don’t have a word, I don’t know a single person,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes, but I feel like that little mistake’s been following me since I was 25 and caught that little drug charge.”

‘Beaten down’

Muhumed said that after his treatment in West Texas, spending months apart from his family and being shuffled from detention center to detention center, he’s ready to give up and accept deportation to Somalia.

“I’m doing this to let everyone know what’s going on with this treatment that’s going on here, everything that we went through. I don’t want anyone else to go through the same process, the same torture,” he said.

“Personally, I don’t want to stay anymore. I did, but not anymore after what I’ve been seeing lately. The country we grew up with, we loved, it’s not the same anymore. Especially with this new administration and this hate that’s going around. It’s not somewhere that we can feel comfortable or that we can feel safe as Somali or African, as a Muslim, as black.”

His U.S. citizen wife, Layla Jama, who was on the same conference call, said afterward that the separation from his family has been incredibly difficult for Muhumed.

“He’s talking out of frustration right now, but obviously the conditions in Somalia are a hundredfold worse than what is here,” Jama said. “A lot of what Guled’s saying right now, specifically it’s coming out of frustration. It’s been a long battle … but I don’t think he means it.”

ICE has found it difficult to deport immigrants to Somalia, where the militant group Al-Shabab is trying to overthrow the government, said Marouf, the A&M professor. She said that’s likely part of the reason the Somali men have been shuffled from detention center to detention center for months.

“I don’t think they really have a plan for how to remove all of them, so they’re indefinitely in detention,” Marouf said. “If deportation isn’t foreseeable, they’re supposed to release someone. And they keep scheduling flights and saying removal is foreseeable, but they keep canceling the flights.”

Several family members of the men in detention told reporters Friday that the men felt pressured to sign agreements to leave the U.S. Meanwhile, the wives and fiances of several said their husbands have been denied medical care and complaints about their treatment had been ignored.

Shantel Ismail, whose husband, Mohamed Ismail, was held in the West Texas facility, said she spoke to him on the phone one time and heard in the background the screams of a man who needed medical attention. Her husband hasn’t seen his infant daughter for months and has considered accepting deportation and trying to reunite with his family in another country, said Ismail, a nurse in Ohio.

“He’s just defeated at this point. His rights are being taken from him. He’s being mistreated. He’s been beaten and handcuffed,” she said. “They’ve beaten these men down so much they don’t have anything left.”

Jason Buch is a San Antonio Express-News staff writer. Read more of his stories here. | jbuch@express-news.net | @jlbuch

Diaspora

Somali Man charged the deaths of 4 in fatal I-55 accident

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STAUTON, IL – A Colorado truck driver has been charged following an investigation into a multi-vehicle accident that killed 4 people and injured 11 others. Mohamed Jama, 54, of Greeley, Colorado, turned himself in to the Madison County Jail Monday.

The accident happened on southbound I-55 in Madison County on November 21, 2017.

The fatal accident killed 2 sisters, Madisen and Hailey Bertels and a friend, Tori Carroll, and an out of state woman, Vivian Vu in another vehicle.

Authorities say the accident occurred when a tractor-trailer driven by Mohamed Jama failed to slow down and stop for cars in front of him in a construction zone.

By the time it was all over, 7 vehicles were damaged and the people inside them injured or killed.

The sisters attended high school in Staunton.

The deaths deeply touched Staunton where people knew the young women or knew people who were their friends. Many in town were still grieving the loss. Matthew Batson said, “I’ll hear stories about them all the time, even though it’s been five months? Yes, it’s a lasting effect.”

The Madison County State`s Attorney Tom Gibbon said if convicted of all the crimes Mohamed Jama could spend the rest of his life in prison. With summer coming on and more construction zone Gibbons says there`s a warning for all of us.

“Each of us out there in our cars we really need to pay attention, watch out, slow down you never want to see something like this to happen again it so terrible for all the victim I’m sure that no person would want to be the cause of something like this.”

Jama is charged with 4 counts of reckless homicide and 8 counts of reckless driving. He`s being held in the Madison County Jail without bond.

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Books

CANADA: Edmonton author aims to boost diversity in children’s book publishing

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EDMONTON—Two years ago Rahma Mohamed’s then four-year-old daughter saw an Elsa costume, complete with blond braids, and pleaded with her mother to buy it so she would look “beautiful.”

That’s when Mohamed decided her kids needed more cultural inspiration than the blond princess from Frozen.

After a year of work, the first-time author published Muhima’s Quest, a children’s book that tells the story of a young African-America Muslim girl who wakes up on her 10th birthday and goes on a journey.

Now, Mohamed’s at work on her second book, which is due out at the end of the month. She’s on a journey of her own, she said, to boost diversity in children’s publishing.

“I wanted to create a character who had African descent and is a Muslim in a children’s book because I just found out that there were none that were available in the mainstream,” she said.

Her books show kids it’s OK to be different, she said. Take her first book: some Muslims don’t celebrate birthdays, she explains, and the little girl in the book struggles with her faith and questions why she doesn’t celebrate like her classmates do.

“The overall message is that we do things differently, but that part is what makes us beautiful,” Mohamed said.

She said she felt it necessary for her kids to see themselves represented in the books they read in order to “enhance their self-confidence, as well as bolster their sense of pride.”

Mohamed, who writes under the pen name Rahma Rodaah, self-published her first book and since last summer, has sold 200 copies locally.

“It does take a lot of resources and you have to self-finance, but I believe in the end it’s worth it,” she said.

She hopes to go bigger with her second book, which focuses on the universal concept of sibling rivalry, and features a young girl who plans on selling her little brother because she believes he is getting all the attention.

“My overall goal is to portray Muslim Africans who are basically a normal family.”

Mohamed says her previous book was well-received by parents at readings she had done at public libraries and schools.

“Most of them who are Muslims really loved that the kids could identify with the characters,” she said.

The books also acted as a conversation starter for non-Muslim families, she said.

She said, for her, the most exciting part of the journey is knowing that she is making a difference in shaping the minds of young Black Muslims.

“We are underrepresented, misunderstood and mostly mischaracterized. It is time we paint a different picture.”

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Minnesota

When radicalization lured two Somali teenagers … from Norway

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Mukhtar Ibrahim

In October 2013, two Somali teenage girls named Ayan and Leila shocked their parents by running away to join ISIS in Syria. Their radicalization story is unusual in that it happened in Norway.

Acclaimed Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad spent years researching what happened. Now her book, “Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad” is available in the United States.

Seierstad, who discusses her book Monday night at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, said she didn’t go looking for the story.

“The story actually came to me,” she said. “It was the father of the girls who actually wanted the story to be written.”

His name is Sadiq, a Somali man who worked for years to bring his family to Norway. He hoped for a better life. He thought things were going well, then everything collapsed when Ayan and Leila disappeared.

When the girls left home, their parents were in shock, Seierstad said. “They hadn’t understood what was this about. Why? And then as months went by and they got to learn more about radicalization, they realized that all the signs had been there. That the girls were like a textbook case of radicalization. And he [Sadiq] wanted the book to be written to warn others, to tell this story to warn other parents.”

It is a perplexing story. Ayan and Leila were bright, and opinionated. They didn’t put up with being pushed around.

“And that is somehow part of why they left, in their logic,” said Seierstad, adding that the girls were convinced Syria and ISIS offered a chance of eternal life.

“They believed that life here and now is not real life. Real life happens after death. And this life is only important as a test. So the better your score, the better you behave in this life, the better position you will have in heaven for eternity. So isn’t that better?”

Seierstad is known for her in-depth reporting. Her book “One of Us,” about Anders Breivik, the gunman who killed 77 people in Norway’s worst terror attack, is an international best-seller.

When published in Norway Seierstad said, “Two Sisters” became the top-selling book for two years running. What pleases her most is the breadth of her readership. She gets email from young Somali girls, and also from government officials who want to prevent future radicalization.

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