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Rising deportations to Somalia raise concerns in Minnesota



Surge in asylum rejections, removals to terror-stricken nation spark worry.

Mila Koumpilova

The pace of deportations to Somalia is picking up fast — and setting local natives of the East African country on edge.

Eight months into the fiscal year, deportations to Somalia have already outpaced last year’s record-setting numbers. Nationally, more than 260 people were deported to Somalia since October — mostly Somalis who sought asylum unsuccessfully, but also some permanent U.S. residents with criminal convictions.

Alarmed community members grilled the Somali ambassador on a recent visit to the Twin Cities. Minnesota’s DFL congressional delegation in May wrote the Trump administration questioning the removals to a country grappling with famine and threats by the terror group Al-Shabab.

“These realities cause great concern for the decision to deport so many Somalis to a situation where they would face imminent risk and danger,” the letter said.

But some administration supporters have lauded its effort to pressure Somalia and other “recalcitrant” countries to accept more deportees. At the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates limiting immigration, fellow Jessica Vaughan says the U.S. must put its citizens’ safety first. Otherwise, she says, “We are stuck with people who are no longer eligible to remain in this country because conditions in their own countries remain poor.”

Somali deportations began increasing under President Barack Obama, and they have kept up as President Donald Trump took office with promises to step up immigration enforcement. Improved cooperation by Somalia appears to be a key factor. The country was on the Obama administration’s list of nations that didn’t play ball with U.S. immigration authorities, but it vanished from the new administration’s list released in May.

From 30 to 260 in five years

The 260 people deported to Somalia through May 6 compare to 198 for the entire 2016 fiscal year and about 30 five years ago, when the U.S. government began to more readily repatriate Somalis to the war-torn country. The 2017 number includes 80 people deported through the St. Paul office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which also covers the Dakotas, Nebraska and Iowa.

Both nationally and locally, about a quarter of deportees had criminal convictions, according to data from ICE. More than 4,830 Somalis in the United States have pending final orders of deportation, including about 300 in the states covered by the St. Paul ICE office.

Kamal Hassan, founder of the Somali Human Rights Commission, has a nephew who was deported earlier this month.

The Embassy of Somalia in Washington, D.C., which reopened in 2015, has demanded letters from deportees saying they agree to go back before its staff will issue travel documents. Its home page features a release about the 90 people deported on a January chartered flight; it says they signed statements that affirm “their full consent to be returned to Somalia.”

Attorneys and community leaders say some Somalis with legal troubles have signed the statements in hopes of getting a fresh start in Africa. Others face lengthy stays in immigration detention in the U.S. Late last year, a Somali man called attorney Marc Prokosch after six months in detention to ask, “What can I do to have them just send me back?”

But last month, a Somali man was deported after refusing to sign, says his attorney, Bruce Nestor. In court documents challenging the man’s detention, Nestor argued that the U.S. government was pressuring his client into making a false statement.

The Somali embassy did not respond to requests for an interview. But community members who attended a recent meeting with Ambassador Ahmed Isse Awad said he argued that Somalia has an obligation to take its citizens back — at least those who go willingly.

“People were very mad, and they were asking him harsh questions,” said Amiin Harun, a Somali-American lawyer. “He said, ‘We are not forcing anybody to be sent back.’ ”

Kamal Hassan, founder of the nonprofit Somali Human Rights Commission, pleaded with the ambassador not to issue travel documents for his nephew and others facing deportation. Hassan says the young man traveled to South America and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally after the murder of his father, a leader in Somalia’s Sufi religious minority targeted by Al-Shabab. After a lengthy detention, his asylum application and an appeal were rejected.

“You know Somalia is not safe,” Hassan says he told the ambassador. “Why are you lying that it is safe and sending people in harm’s way?”

Hassan said his nephew has been deported, without signing a statement agreeing to go.

ICE referred all questions about the embassy’s practices to the ambassador.

More fleeing to Canada

Attorneys such as Harun are fielding more questions about the deportations, even from green card holders and citizens. The increase in removals, among other factors, has spurred a rise in illegal crossings into Canada by Somali asylum seekers.

Prokosch says he doesn’t advise his clients to sneak into Canada — but, he says, “In certain circumstances I would probably say, ‘Staying isn’t going to help you,’ and let them read between the lines.”

In their letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, all Democratic U.S. senators and representatives from Minnesota said the deportations could undermine the Somali community’s efforts to counter radical recruitment by feeding an Al-Shabab narrative that “Somalis are unwelcome and unwanted in America.”

Making good on promise

Getting foreign countries to cooperate on deportations was a key campaign pledge for Trump, who lambasted Obama for letting countries block removals. A Supreme Court decision required the release of most immigrants from immigration detention after 180 days if they are unlikely to be deported soon, and some with criminal records have gone on to commit more crimes. In 2011, a Somali national from Eagan, released after serving a sentence for a stabbing, shot and killed four people in North Dakota.

Since taking over, the Trump administration has run into the complexities of forcing countries to take deportees; news reports show that criminals whose home countries won’t accept them continue to be released. But, says Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, the administration’s willingness to impose visa sanctions on uncooperative countries is having an effect.

“Countries don’t want to put foreign aid and the ability of their citizens to travel to the U.S. at risk,” she said.

Iraq’s promise to start cooperating on deportees was a key reason that country stayed off Trump’s revised executive order pausing travel from some Muslim-majority countries, senior administration officials said. Whether the other six countries, including Somalia, remain on a list for “extreme vetting” will depend on their willingness to accept their deportees, officials said.

Meanwhile, Minnesota state Rep. Ilhan Omar recently launched an online petition urging Trump to hold off on deportations as Somalia struggles with drought and famine. Omar Jamal, a community leader, points to the killing last month of a U.S. Navy SEAL in Somalia as evidence the country remains caught up in violence.

“If someone breaks the laws of this country … so be it,” he said. “But we hope they will look at the bigger picture.”

Some are concerned about young people who came to the U.S. as children of refugees — and have little clue how to navigate their parents’ homeland.

“You’re just setting them up to go to a different world they don’t belong to,” said Mohamud Noor of the nonprofit Confederation of Somali Community, who gave character references for several men fighting their deportations.


Minnesota Somali Community Condemning Charges Against Mohamed Noor



WCCO — The Somali-American Police Officers Association calls the charges “baseless and politically motivated, if not racially motivated as well,” Esme Murphy reports (2:28). WCCO 4 News at 5 – March 22, 2018

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Arts & Culture

First-ever Somali exhibit at Minnesota History Center opens in June



STAR TRIBUNE — The Minnesota History Center will throw open the doors to “Somalis + Minnesota” in June, the first long-term exhibit about the east African nation’s culture, heritage and diaspora at the state’s premier history museum.

Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, and their stories need to be told, said Steve Elliott, CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, which operates the History Center. The U.S. Census reports the Somali population in Minnesota at 57,000, though the actual number is believed to be much higher.

“With Somali people in almost every sector of Minnesota’s workforce, now is the time to celebrate the strength and resilience of the Somali people and to help build bridges in understanding what it means to be an immigrant,” Elliott said.

The exhibit is being created in partnership with the Somali Museum of Minnesota, which opened on Lake Street in Minneapolis in 2013.

“We see this as a big honor,” said Osman Mohamed Ali, founder of the Somali Museum. “The Somali community is proud that they will have their stories told at the Minnesota History Center.”

Ali said Minnesotans are curious about their neighbors’ history and that there’s a need in the Somali community to teach the younger generation about their heritage. Many Somalis arrived in Minnesota as refugees fleeing civil war, and families have been more focused on rebuilding their lives than exploring family histories.

“There are a lot of Somalis who don’t know their history,” Ali said. “It will be educational for all Minnesotans — whether they are Somali-Americans or non-Somali-Americans.”

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Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor makes first court appearance; leaves jail after posting $400,000 bond



STAR TRIBUNE — The former Minneapolis police officer charged with murder and manslaughter in the July shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond made his first court appearance Wednesday, where his bail was set at $400,000.

During the hearing, Mohamed Noor said his first public words since the incident in south Minneapolis, spelling his name and confirming his address to Judge Kathryn Quaintance. Noor, slight and soft-spoken, said nothing else during the 15-minute hearing at the Public Safety Facility in downtown Minneapolis.

Quaintance set his bail at $400,000 on the condition that he turn over his passport, surrender his firearms and ammunition and refrain from contacting his former partner Matthew Harrity, the lone witness in the racially charged case that drew international outrage and led to the ouster of former police Chief Janeé Harteau. Bail without conditions was set at $500,000. Noor paid the $400,000 conditional bond and left the Hennepin County jail late Wednesday in the company of his attorney.
Police union officials said that Noor was fired from the department on Tuesday.

Throughout the hearing Wednesday, Noor stood behind a glass partition in an orange jail jumpsuit, wearing a solemn expression. He barely turned to face the packed courtroom gallery, never making eye contact with a group of relatives and friends seated in the front row. Several dozen other supporters huddled in the hallway outside the courtroom.

Noor, 32, turned himself in on Tuesday morning, a day after authorities issued a sealed warrant for his arrest. He is charged with firing his gun from inside his police SUV and hitting Damond, who had called 911 to report a suspected assault in the alley behind her Fulton neighborhood home. Her death provoked protests and became a symbol, in Minneapolis and her native Australia, of how police shootings affect all communities. It also led to Harteau’s firing by then-Mayor Betsy Hodges.

Noor maintained his silence, choosing not to speak to state investigators or the grand jury investigating Damond’s death. The grand jury concluded its probe Monday, the day before Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced his charging decision.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy argued that Noor’s bail should be substantial, saying that he posed a flight risk, and that her office had developed “credible evidence” last fall that Noor had left the country.

The report proved false, but she said prosecutors grew more worried after hearing from a witness who claimed that he had “offered to hide [Noor] out.”

“These are the witness’ words, not mine,” she said.

Noor’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, said in court that the charges against his client were baseless, while calling the initial $500,000 bail “frankly, outrageous.”

He pointed out that Noor had submitted his DNA to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in June for testing, and later voluntarily went to City Hall to meet with an investigator after rumors surfaced that he had left the country.

Plunkett said that Noor posed no risk of fleeing, adding that the former officer came to Minnesota at the age of 5, escaping a civil war in his native Somalia, and had never known another home.

“He has no connection to any other place,” said Plunkett, after waiving a reading of the charges. “Your Honor, Mr. Noor is an American.”

After hearing from both sides, Quaintance offered the conditional bail and set Noor’s next court date for May 8.

“Officer Noor, like any other person charged with a crime in America, is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Quaintance said. “If he has a trial, it will be in a court of law, not in the media or in the streets.”

Defense attorney Ryan Pacyga said that he was surprised by the prosecution’s high bail request, particularly considering that Noor voluntarily turned himself in and has ties to the community.

He also scoffed at the prosecution’s depiction of Noor as a danger to the public, pointing out that his alleged crime was committed in the course of his duties as a police officer — a profession that is authorized to use deadly force if lives are in imminent danger. “The point is that we’re not talking about some madman, even under the government’s version of this case, that poses some particular danger to the community out there,” Pacyga said.

Jeronimo Yanez, the only other Minnesota officer in recent history charged in an on-duty shooting, was released on his own recognizance. A jury last summer cleared Yanez of any criminal wrongdoing in the shooting death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights.

About a month after that verdict, Damond was killed in Minneapolis.

Messages left for Noor’s father went unreturned on Wednesday.

The Somali-American Police Association broke its monthslong silence on Wednesday, saying in a statement that it was “saddened” by what it called politically and possibly racially motivated charges.

We believe Freeman is more interested in furthering his political agenda than he is in the facts surrounding this case,” the statement read. “The charges brought against Officer Noor are not intended to serve justice; rather, they are meant to make an ‘example’ of him.”

An MPD spokeswoman on Wednesday confirmed that an internal probe into the incident was ongoing, but otherwise declined to comment.

Lt. Bob Kroll said claims that Noor plotted to leave the country were news to him.

“He was on administrative leave so he had daily check-ins with [Internal Affairs], I believe,” said Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, the union that represents the department’s roughly 880 sworn police officers.

He said they will likely file a grievance on Noor’s behalf to challenge the firing, which is standard practice in disciplinary cases. He said that he wasn’t entirely surprised by the department’s decision to fire Noor, who had been on paid administrative leave since the shooting. “I understand when you’ve got a person facing those charges, there’s a lot of pressure for the administration to get that person off the table, given the public outcry,” he said.

The union has come under fire from critics from both within the department and outside its ranks for not publicly defending Noor.

Noor, who joined the department three years ago, is named in a brutality lawsuit wending its way through federal court. Earlier this month, a judge in that case ruled that an attorney for the woman suing Noor along with another Minneapolis cop and the department was not allowed to ask questions about the Damond shooting.

Staff writers Elizabeth Sawyer and Faiza Mahamud contributed to this report.

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