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Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenEXPAND
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen
U.S. Department of State / Wikimedia Commons

Somalis in South Florida Deported by ICE on "Slave Ship" File Class-Action Suit

In the early-morning hours of December 7, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Louisiana woke up 92 Somali detainees and shackled them by their wrists, waists, and ankles. The Somalis were then loaded onto a chartered airplane that was supposed to return them to Somalia. But then, for reasons the government has not yet explained, the plane landed in Dakar, Senegal. It sat on the ground for 23 hours and then headed back to the United States, landing in Miami.

The deportees were kept shackled in the airplane for at least 48 hours straight. ICE agents allegedly beat them, restrained them, and dragged them down the aisle. The agents laughed as toilets overflowed and some men urinated on themselves.

The 92 detainees are now being held in two South Florida detention centers, and ICE says it plans to deport the group again — possibly tomorrow, December 20. But yesterday, the group filed a class-action lawsuit against the federal government in the U.S. Southern District of Florida, alleging their treatment violates government policy that bars deportation to war-torn countries. The suit also claims the government has prevented the deportees from accessing lawyers.

"As the plane sat on the runway, the 92 detainees remained bound, their handcuffs secured to their waists, and their feet shackled together," the lawsuit reads. "When the plane’s toilets overfilled with human waste, some of the detainees were left to urinate into bottles or on themselves. ICE agents wrapped some who protested, or just stood up to ask a question, in full-body restraints. ICE agents kicked, struck, or dragged detainees down the aisle of the plane, and subjected some to verbal abuse and threats."

The lawsuit details multiple alleged incidents in which ICE officials beat and abused the Somalis. One of those who was beaten, an Iowa man, says an ICE agent poked him in the eye after he asked to use the restroom. He says he might permanently lose vision in his eye. Another detainee reported being dragged down the plane's aisle by his collar, while others repeatedly said ICE officials threatened to beat or kill them.

Some of the detainees do not have criminal records and were picked up for violating immigration laws. (The Guardian previously reported that roughly two-thirds of the detainees did have records, and some had convictions for rape or homicide.) They're being held at the Krome Detention Center in Miami-Dade and the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven, west of Lake Okeechobee. The group's legal team includes multiple lawyers from the Immigration Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law, as well as Americans for Immigrant Justice (AIJ), a Miami-based advocacy group.

Lisa Lehner, an AIJ lawyer, told New Times the detainees still don't know why the airplane was forced to land in Senegal and turn around. She said she'd heard rumblings that the group could be boarded back onto an aircraft as early as tonight.

"They’re not telling us," Lehner said of ICE. "Whatever they’re going to do, it's going to be dictated by a federal court, if a federal court decides it's getting involved. But it's still a big mystery what happened — just a strange situation."

National news outlets, including the New York Times, broke news of the flight when it landed in Miami December 9. In statements to the media, ICE confirmed that the detainees were kept shackled throughout the flight but denied that agents beat anyone or treated the Somalis inhumanely. The agency claims that, upon landing in Dakar, the flight crew wasn't able to get enough rest because of "issues with their hotel," so ICE decided it was best to fly all the way back to the States instead of continuing to Somalia.

But the Somali nationals maintain they will be subjected to violence back home. The country has been besieged by militants from the Al-Shabaab terror group — the detainees said yesterday in court that the group intentionally targets people with Western mannerisms. On October 14, the group is believed to have carried out a pair of truck bombings in Mogadishu, the nation's capital, killing hundreds of people. The legal team for the detainees told the Times earlier this month they're floored that ICE would even consider deporting people to such a dangerous area.

In yesterday's court filing, lawyers for the group argued the publicity from the botched deportation flight makes the 92 deportees even larger targets. The lawyers wrote that "despite the clear danger that Plaintiffs/Petitioners and the class they represent now face in Somalia, ICE is attempting to deport them based on removal orders that do not take account of the danger created by the media coverage of the December 7 flight and recent escalation of violence in Somalia — facts that qualify as intervening changed circumstances which entitle Plaintiffs/Petitioners and the others in the class to protection."

The legal team also told the Times that ICE took five of the deportees from their homes in Minnesota, which has a large Somali population, without notifying any of the immigrants' lawyers. The cousin of one deportee cried over the phone to a news reporter and said her relative had not been to Somalia in 20 years and had no connections there. According to ICE figures, 521 Somali nationals were deported in 2017, up from 198 the previous year.

The seven detainees named in the lawsuit are men of various ages and backgrounds. Nearly all fled the African nation to escape either the Somali civil war, which has been ongoing since 1991, or Al-Shabaab militants. (One man wrote he'd been shot in the eye and stabbed by radicals before he fled.) Some left recently as adults, while others either departed as children or have not been back to Somalia in decades. Multiple men have children here.

Lehner, the Miami-based lawyer, said a judge will convene an emergency hearing on the matter later today. For now, the detainees are terrified they could be loaded back onto a plane tonight, she says.

The suit adds that group members "have injuries that have not healed and that have not been given adequate medical treatment."

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