Ex-child soldier from Sierra Leone freed in Minnesota

Nelson Kargbo
Nelson Kargbo was released from immigration detention after two years in metro county jails.
Courtesy of the ACLU

A former child soldier and Minnesota refugee from Sierra Leone was released from immigration detention Thursday after a federal judge granted his release under a United Nation's treaty for protection against torture.

Nelson Kargbo, 30, faces two misdemeanor charges for domestic assault. Police arrested him back in August 2013 and he had been detained in several metro county jails since then.

Kargbo was not convicted of the charges, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement moved to deport him based on three previous terroristic threats and theft convictions dating back seven years, according to a Habeas petition filed in June.

His attorney Kate Evans, a teaching fellow with the University of Minnesota, said the most recent crimes are "very low level crimes in the eyes of the criminal justice system," but ones that precluded him from seeking release.

"No judge ever looked at him and said he's a flight risk or he's a danger," she said.

Kargbo was 11 years old when he was forced to fight as a child soldier. He fled Sierra Leone a few years later. He moved to the United States in 2000 and received lawful permanent residency three years later.

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ICE kept Kargbo detained for committing crimes of "moral turpitude." Immigration sought to either take him back to Sierra Leone or seek asylum somewhere else. Kargbo countered he was afraid to return to his home country and wanted to stay in Minnesota with his four children.

"I was scared that I was going to face persecution," he said, "because I was a child soldier I was scared."

Evans said deportation to other countries was just a theory. The law would only let him be deported if another country accepted him, which doesn't happen. That left Kargbo in limbo, unable to leave but not allowed to live free in the United States.

Kargbo initially challenged the length of his detention beyond constitutional bounds, which Evans says has varied across the country depending on the case. Courts have agreed, however, that there is a limit if ICE doesn't assess flight risk and danger.

An immigration judge didn't reach that question because he granted Kargbo's release under the United Nation's Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. U.S. District Magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois determined Kargbo's prolonged detention was no longer supported by any legal authority.

The deal cost Kargbo his lawful permanent residency status and the chance to become a U.S. citizen in the future. Even though it's not clear how long he can stay, Kargbo said he's finally able to spend time with his children, to take them on outings and participate in parent-teacher conferences.

"It feels great to see my family again," he said. "It means the world to me."

ICE did not return to messages seeking comment.

Correction (Oct. 10, 2015): An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported which judge granted Nelson Kargbo's release.