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Rising deportations to Somalia raise concerns in Minnesota

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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

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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Ilhan Omar documentary among Minnesota projects headed to New York’s Tribeca Film Festival

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STAR TRIBUNE — Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival will have more than a touch of Minnesota this year. Two projects shot largely in the state will be part of the event that runs from April 18-29 in New York City.

“A Time for Ilhan,” by documentary filmmaker Norah Shapiro, chronicles Ilhan Omar’s successful bid to win election to the Minnesota House of Representatives, making her the first Somali-American, Muslim woman to hold state office in the United States.

In addition, Rosemount native Naomi Ko will be shopping a pilot for a potential series. “Nice,” which was mostly shot in the Twin Cities, stars Ko as a young Korean-American woman who faces a crisis when she’s diagnosed with cancer. Ko, who appeared in the 2014 indie hit “Dear White People,” is hoping screenings at the festival will attract a streaming service or network that will green-light an entire season.

The festival, now in its 17th year, will also feature new documentaries about Gilda Radner and the New York Times, as well as high-profile feature films, including the sci-fi romance “Zoe,” starring Ewan McGregor, last seen showing off his Midwest accent in “Fargo.”

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After charges in Justine Damond killing, racial dynamic remains a focal point

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STAR TRIBUNE — To some, the question loomed large as a former Minneapolis police officer was charged in the killing of an unarmed woman: Would the charges — the first in a case involving a fatal shooting by police in recent Hennepin County history — have come if the officer hadn’t been black and Somali-American and the victim hadn’t been white?

An intense debate over the shooting’s uncommon racial dynamic has played out among police reform activists, in the city’s Somali malls and among the police department’s own officers. Even some passionate proponents of police accountability balked at celebrating the murder and manslaughter charges against Officer Mohamed Noor, saying they reflected the justice system’s racial bias as much as previous local decisions not to charge cops who kill in the line of duty. Some Somali-Americans worried their community, rather than the use of deadly force by an officer, will end up on trial.

But others said the charges are a clear win in the push for more scrutiny of police use of force and possibly the beginning of a tougher approach to law enforcement accountability. Noor shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 40-year-old Australian spiritual healer and meditation coach, minutes after she called police to report a suspected sexual assault in her southwest Minneapolis neighborhood.

“There have been numerous shootings that the community felt were unjustified and this one with Ms. Damond is one of them,” said Nathaniel Khaliq, past president of the St. Paul NAACP. “I hope it lowers the threshold for officers to be charged in deadly shootings.”

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced the charges Tuesday, more than eight months after Damond’s killing and nearly two years to the day after he declined to charge two white officers in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Jamar Clark. Damond’s family welcomed the charges, calling them “one step toward justice for this iniquitous act.”

Criticism of the charges

On the question of the Noor charges at Remix Barber and Beauty shop in Minneapolis Friday morning, the predominantly black clientele was in near-agreement: After years of pressure for more accountability in fatal officer shootings, a black cop had been made the fall guy. Customers and co-owner Chanda Tolbert said the charges came as no surprise given the races of the officer and the woman who was shot.

“Race has everything to do with it,” customer Teena Hill said. “It’s not a justice system for us.”

Reaction at nearby Jones and Jones Barber Shop, only a block from the site of Clark’s shooting in 2015, echoed that sentiment. “If it was a white police officer shooting a black man, he wouldn’t have been charged,” said Rob Hannah as he waited to get a haircut. “The system fails us a lot.”

Added owner A.J. Turner, “The Somali community needs to be in an uproar. I would be.”

Talk about race and perceived racial bias has lit up Somali community members’ social media accounts, animated coffee shop conversations and brought a couple of emotional impromptu community meetings in the days following the charges. Some have questioned whether Noor was treated differently from other cops who have killed in the line of duty, alleging a rush to judgment absent after other police shootings.

“A lot of the community is saying that if it’s Michael or David, he’s not going to be guilty today,” said Mahamed Cali, who runs KALY 101.7 FM, a Somali-American radio station.

After months of silence, the Somali American Police Association (SAPA) last week criticized the charges, suggesting Freeman had bowed to political pressure ahead of his re-election bid later this year. In an interview, Waheid Siraach, acting spokesman for SAPA, said the case raises legitimate questions about racial bias.

He pointed to former Police Chief Janeé Harteau’s news conference several days after the shooting in which she condemned Noor’s actions before an investigation had been completed. He also noted a cellphone video of Freeman criticizing the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for its handling of the case and telling activists in a taped conversation that to make a charging decision would be “the big present I’d like to see under the Christmas tree.”

“The aggressiveness, the ruthlessness with which Freeman went after this case, and personally Noor, it’s completely different from how they went after other cases,” Siraach said.

Privately, some Somali-American officers complained they were called in to testify before the grand jury simply because of their ethnicity. They spoke about several racially charged incidents in the department in the aftermath of Damond’s shooting, including disparaging comments about Somalis made by a white sergeant on Facebook, which were investigated last month.

Officers and community activists such as Omar Jamal also criticized Noor’s Tuesday firing, which they said sends a strong message to potential jurors. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Police Federation, usually an outspoken advocate of officers accused of wrongdoing, remained largely silent about the Noor matter for months.

Some in the Somali community worry about a broader backlash, noting feverish speculation in some corners of the internet and elsewhere that Noor’s religion and ethnicity motivated the shooting. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann called Noor an “affirmative-action hire by the hijab-wearing mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges,” and insinuated that Noor may have shot Damond for “cultural” reasons.

Others decried the case as a possible setback in law enforcement efforts to engage with the East African community and recruit officers from its ranks, an initiative that has received international recognition.

“A lot of young people wanted to be a police officer, but they’re rethinking it now,” said Cali, citing his own son as an example. “A lot of young people are saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be [the next] Mohamed.’ ”

Some prominent black police reform advocates are speaking out in Noor’s defense. Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist in Minneapolis, noted that 11 days before Damond was shot, on-duty New York City police officer Miosotis Familia was shot and killed as she sat in an RV police command vehicle in the Bronx. During roll calls across the country, Edwards said, officers were told to be on the lookout for situations in which they could be ambushed, to “have their weapons prepared.”

“In those tragic few seconds, officers were following their orders,” he said, adding, “Justice was not served, but I wasn’t surprised.”

Support for the charges

But the response to the charges in Twin Cities communities of color is far from uniform. For some, the bottom line is that a police officer is being held accountable in the death of an unarmed civilian. They feel the case has helped broaden the call for police and criminal justice reform — and could serve as a rallying cry for a community still reeling from the 2016 shooting death of St. Paul school cafeteria worker Philando Castile by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Yanez was acquitted last year on manslaughter charges.

Farhio Khalif, a Somali-American women’s advocate, said she welcomed the charges against Noor as a chance to get to the bottom of what happened the night Damond was killed.

“My solidarity is with the Damond family. Justine has to be given her justice,” she said.

Khalif says that to her, Noor was simply a Minneapolis officer who shot an unarmed woman, and she voiced disappointment that much has been made in the public discourse of his Somali-American background. She said she trusts that the justice system will handle the case without regard to Noor’s race and background.

Some black community advocates also said they are heartened by the charges.

“Just because racist white folks do terrible things to black folks, we don’t have to act like them,” said Mel Reeves, one of the leaders of an unsuccessful campaign pushing Freeman to indict two officers in the Clark shooting. “I don’t support wrong. Clearly, if officer Noor shot Justine Damond, he should be punished.”

All eyes now turn to Noor’s upcoming prosecution. The proliferation of video and other factors have increased pressure on prosecutors around the country to not only charge but convict officers involved in controversial shootings, according to Justin Nix, who has studied police use of force at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Yet, convictions remain uncommon.

Much remains unknown in the Damond case, which was not captured on video because the officers’ body cameras were turned off at the critical moment. Still, Nix said there appeared to be enough evidence to support charges, regardless of the victim and officer’s race.

“If you separate race from that and you just look at those facts, this is one of those very questionable cases in which charges might be pursued,” he said.

Staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report.

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