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U.S. Immigration spent $200K on Keyse Jama deportation

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Keyse Jama
Keyse Jama, originally from Somalia, was the subject of intense legal wrangling last year over immigration and deportation policy. He was in Minnesota jails awaiting deportation for five years, after being arrested and convicted of an unrelated crime. Jama was released from jail in July 2005.
Photo courtesy of attorney Kevin Magnuson

After the Supreme Court's decision, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, flew Jama by private jet to a region of Somalia known as Puntland. Court documents say the U.S. government hired a private firm called RMI to drop him off. At least two men accompanied him as he entered the Puntland airport. 

Jama had no passport, a key reason he was denied entry. Court documents also say Puntland authorities rejected him because the U.S. government did not deal with them directly. Moreover, they didn't want to become "a dumping ground for American criminals."

Minnesota Public Radio filed a Freedom of Information request seeking details on Jama's round-trip excursion. ICE denied most of MPR's request, saying: "We are not able to locate complete records that are responsive to your request." The only information provided was contained in a one-line statement that reads: "It appears the flight that was scheduled to return Mr. Jama back to Somalia cost $197,680."

No supporting documentation was included, so it's unclear whether that figure includes the agents that accompanied Jama or any other costs. 

ICE spokesman Tim Counts also did not supply the cost breakdown.  He cited fuel as a major cost, the flight crew, landing rights, ICE agents to escort Jama, and at least one medical person on board.  There was also another deportee on board, a war criminal sent to Africa. 

Counts said said the flight was highly complex: "Make that happen within a fairly short time frame when there were constantly legal challenges being filed in district court filed by Jama's attorneys.  In addition, the courts dictated that we were required to remove him to a particular area as opposed to another area and that area we dictated to was more remote, fewer flights, and it was much more difficult to get to."

ICE said it never considered Jama's case  terrorism-related. It wanted to deport him for assaulting a man with a knife in a Waseca parking lot in 1999. His crime meant deportation but prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling, the government could not send deportees to countries like Somalia that were in the midst of civil war. 

ICE continued to detain Jama even after he served sentence for the assault in part because it considered him a flight risk. Three months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Jama, ICE attempted to fly him to Somalia. When that failed, it flew him back to the Twin Cities and to a jail cell. 

Jeffrey Keyes, one of Jama's former lawyers. Keyes says the amount could even be higher.

"Remember this is the flight that took Mr. Jama from Minneapolis to Nairobi," Keyes said.  "And in Nairobi, he was turn over to a private security firm, an Irish firm that does security work for the government.  And he was taken in to Somalia by two people who worked for that security company in a small plane."

Tim Count of ICE said he did not have any details on whether the cost of the flight also included the leg by small plane to Puntland.

David Martin has taught immigration law at the University of Virginia for 25 years and also served in the State Department and the former INS as General Counsel. Martin speculates that immigration authorities may have viewed Jama as a test case.

"If they could successfully return Mr. Jama, it might establish a precedent that could open the door for future returns. And if you look at it in that way and I think the number was 3,500 or so Somalis who have deportation orders, some of whom were costing the government money in daily detention costs, then you could see it as an investment in the longer term," said Martin.

After Jama's return to the Twin Cities, his lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Jack Tunheim to allow Jama out on a conditional release while he awaited deportation. Tunheim granted that request. ICE immediately appealed and that set off a flurry of appeals. Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit upheld Tunheim's order and Jama walked out of jail, a free man. 

After about six months of checking in twice a week with ICE, one of Jama's former lawyers said Jama fled to Canada and has applied for asylum there.