The University of Miami’s immigration law clinic has sued federal immigration officials, seeking to prevent the deportation of 92 Somalis being held at two Miami detention centers, who said they were shackled, beaten and prevented from going to the bathroom on a plane for 48 hours while in U.S. custody, the clinic’s director said.
“I think the conditions they described — hands tied to waist and legs and being forced to sit for 48 hours, coupled with the abuse that occurred are conditions reminiscent of a slave-ship experience,” Rebecca Sharpless, director of the UM Immigration Clinic, said Tuesday.
The clinic, working with Legal Aid Service of Broward County, the James H. Binger Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School and Americans for Immigrant Justice, filed the class-action suit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Miami federal court on Monday. They sought to bar the immigration agency from deporting the Somali men and women, contending U.S. immigration law prohibits the forcible return of those who would be subject to persecution in their home countries.
An emergency hearing was held Tuesday afternoon before U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles, who ruled ICE was not to remove any of the individuals, nor transfer them outside the court’s jurisdiction. He scheduled a hearing for Jan. 2.
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“This is great news,” Sharpless said. “The judge understood the situation and did the right thing here. This is giving all the men and women on the flight an opportunity to take the next step and try to reopen their cases.”
According to ICE, 61 of the 92 Somalis had criminal convictions, including “homicide, rape and aggravated assault,” Newsweek reported. The rest were picked up for being in the U.S. without proper authorization.
The Somalis began their ordeal on Dec. 7 in a Louisiana detention center, when ICE officials woke them up, shackled them and put them on a plane to return to Somalia in east Africa. Instead, they wound up in Dakar, Senegal, on the other side of the continent in west Africa. They were held on the runway for 23 hours before returning to Miami. During that time, the suit contends, the Somalis suffered “inhumane conditions and egregious abuse.”
According to the suit, for the duration of the almost 48-hour trip, ICE shackled the Somali immigrants at their wrists, waist, and legs and forced them to stay seated. While the plane sat on the runway in Senegal, ICE agents allegedly kicked, struck, choked, and dragged some detainees down the aisle and put others in straitjackets. The deportees were also denied access to a working bathroom, leaving some detainees to relieve themselves into bottles or on themselves.
Sharpless said the treatment violated basic human decency. The clinic and the other groups conducted 60 to 70 interviews with detainees held at South Florida’s Krome Service Processing Center and Glades Detention Center.
“We were shackled the entire time, from when we left from Louisiana until we arrived back in Miami, about 48 hours later. Our hands were cuffed and attached to our waist by a chain. Our legs were cuffed. My shoulders began hurting because I could not move them, and my leg was numb when I tried to stand up,” said asylum seeker Ibrahim Musa, 48, a Somalian who has four children with U.S. citizenship.
“I saw people getting rolled up like a burrito in restraints,” Abdiwali Ahmed Siyad, 33, said in his deposition. He originally left Somalia at 4, in 1990, after he was struck by a bullet and lost an eye.
The suit asks that the detainees not be returned to Somalia, where they face torture and death from the anti-American, anti-Western terrorist group Al Shabab, Sharpless said.
“Our legal argument is that immigration law protects people from being sent back to persecution or torture,” she said. “The law permits the reopening or a removal case where there are circumstances that, as of now, everyone facing deportation to Somalia is at increased risk of being harmed or kill by the terrorist group Al Shabab. Al Shabab has been increasing its terrorist activities.”
She cited the bomb attack in Mogadishu [Somalia’s capital] on Oct. 14, a terrorist attack that killed more than 500 people. Many of the men and women who were on the Dec. 7 flight have had family members killed or threatened by Al Shabab, she said. Last week, a suicide bomber killed 17 at a Somali police academy.
“In the last week there has been widespread news coverage of Dec. 7 (flight), making everyone on the next plane a target for violence directed against institutions associated with the West,” Sharpless said.
“I am a Westernized Somali,” Musa said in his deposition. “I am afraid of Al Shabab, because they kill and harm people from the West, and I have been living in the U.S. for 20 years. I speak with an American accent.”