Mohamed Hussein arrived in Minnesota as an infant more than 20 years ago. On Thursday morning, he was taken from the United States in shackles on a plane bound for Somalia, a country he's never seen, where he knows no one.
Detained in September after he reported for a regular check-in with federal immigration officials, Hussein was transferred to a Louisiana detention center to be deported. He'd be in Somalia now except that logistical problems forced the flight back to the U.S. after it reached Senegal in West Africa.
Although he's back on American soil, Hussein remains stuck in a maddening limbo, one shared by many undocumented Somalis who came here or were brought here as children by family members, and whose risk of deportation has risen dramatically in the past year.
Minnesota immigration lawyers are scrambling now to get emergency stays for Hussein and other Somali clients who've been ordered deported by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Hussein's flight included 91 other men and women; at least 10 were Minnesota residents.
Their families fear their loved ones could die in Somalia's violence. The worry extends beyond those individuals who face deportation to those they leave behind. Their stories are heart-rending.
Hussein sits now in a Miami detention center awaiting his fate. His wife is due any moment with their first child. She also has children from a previous relationship.
Hussein told MPR News he's confused about why the U.S. government is sending him to Somalia.
His mother said her son was born in Canada and had never been to Somalia. The family, with the help of with the Steven C. Thal law firm in Minnetonka, is working now to obtain his birth certificate from Canada to prove he is a Canadian citizen.
"I have never seen Somalia in my life," Hussein said in a phone interview. "There's nobody there for me. If they send me to Somalia right now, I don't have nobody that's going to pick me up from the airport. I don't know what I will do over there. I don't know how to survive over there. They are wrongly deporting me to a country I am not from."
He described harsh conditions on the flight. He said his hands and feet were shackled from Louisiana to Senegal and that deportation officers on the flight would not let detainees use the bathroom or receive medical attention.
"Every time we try to get up to use the bathroom, they will forcefully push us down back to the seat," Hussein said.
ICE spokesperson Brendan Raedy said those deported on charter removal flights are restrained for the safety of those on board. ICE, in a statement, said, "No one was injured during the flight, and there were no incidents or altercations that would have caused any injuries on the flight."
ICE said the plane first stopped in Dakar, Senegal's capital, for refueling and pilot exchange. The agency added that the relief flight crew did not get enough rest due to issues with their hotel in Dakar.
"The whole situation is really bizarre and the explanation that ICE gave doesn't really make any sense," said immigration attorney John Bruning of the Kim Hunter Law firm, a St. Paul practice with two clients on the flight. "We are still trying to figure out what exactly happened and what's going on."
Hussein's wife, Iman Osman, praises her husband as a supportive and exemplary man. When the thought of him not witnessing the birth of their daughter dawned on her, Osman said she lost her appetite and went into depression.
"I'm happy that I'm pregnant, but I'm not very happy like how I was," she said. "I'm not as excited as I was supposed to be because I don't have that person to share that excitement with me."
Just enforcing the law
More Somalis are being deported in similar fashion now than any other time.
ICE deported 512 Somalis from around the country from October 2016 through September 2017, compared to 198 during the same period a year earlier, according to the agency's data.
Lawyers and advocates say a majority of those deported in the 2017 fiscal year happened under the Trump administration. There are more detentions, more arrests and more people held in jail pending their deportation than before, according to immigration lawyers.
"I feel like this year has just been exceptionally difficult because we are dealing with an administration who is just very anti-immigrant, very pro-enforcement where as I felt before if I called immigration we could figure something out together, we could work together and that has changed," said Mirella Ceja-Orozco, a lawyer with the Steven C. Thal law firm, which is representing Rahim Mohamed, another detainee on the flight.
Ceja-Orozco and other attorneys are scrambling to get emergency stays for their clients in the hope of re-opening their cases by arguing that it's dangerous to send people to Somalia. Many note the recent bombings in Mogadishu in October, where more than 500 people were killed.
The State Department warns U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to Somalia because of "widespread terrorist and criminal activity."
Immigration lawyers also say the U.S. government is not taking that into account when it deports Somalis, some who have lived in the United States for decades and don't know much about their homeland.
Federal immigration officials say they are just enforcing the law.
"ICE promotes public safety and national security by ensuring the departure from the United States of all removable aliens through the fair and effective enforcement of the nation's immigration laws," Raedy said.
The United States formally recognized the Somali government in 2013 after decades of no diplomatic relations between the two countries. In June 2016, the first U.S. ambassador to Somalia in 25 years was sworn in.
The country still continues to grapple with security, unemployment, drought and other longstanding challenges as it slowly tries to recover from decades of violent conflict.
While the U.S. military continues to hunt terrorists in Somalia with drones, the Trump administration has placed travel restrictions on that country and five other mostly Muslim countries.
Since 2014, the number of Somalis deported to Somalia has been increasing. In the 2017 fiscal year alone, the U.S. sent five charter flights full of deportees to Somalia.
If the current pace of deportations continue to rise, more Somalis could be deported to Somalia in the 2018 fiscal year than being admitted into the United States.
'The day my heart just stopped'
On Wednesday night, Maryam Maye spoke over the phone with Rahim Mohamed, her husband, who was in the detention facility in Louisiana, waiting to be deported to Somalia the next morning on the flight with Hussein.
She recalled telling him to call her before he got on the flight. She knew she might not see him again anytime soon. Or maybe never. Maye was worried her husband could get killed in a random act of violence in Somalia.
"The last call I had with him would be the last conversation that I will ever have with him," Maye recalled.
Since his application for asylum was denied in 2005 after he missed his court hearing Mohamed had been doing regular six-month check-ins to make sure he hadn't evaded the law and was complying with immigration authorities.
Mohamed was detained on April 19 as he reported for his regular immigration check at a federal building in Atlanta. A few hours later, he called his wife from a detention facility three hours from Atlanta.
"That was the day that my heart just dropped," Maye said, who had lived in Minnesota for two decades before she moved to Atlanta in 2014 to live with her husband.
That Wednesday night, Maye stayed awake. She waited for a call from her husband. She wanted to speak with him one last time.
She waited for his call on Thursday. She waited all Friday and Saturday. And then her husband, who was scheduled to be in Somalia by then, called her on Sunday afternoon from the detention facility in Miami.
Maye said she is praying that Mohamed will come home soon. He has a truck driving business and is the sole provider for his family.
"I'm having so many hopes in my heart that something will happen soon so that he won't have to leave," she said. "My kids won't be fatherless. My son doesn't know who his father is. That is one thing that kills me. And the fact that he cries out and says 'daddy' every single day. That is something that I can never watch or hear."
Maye started to sob. Her husband had missed the birth of his daughter, who was born in October.
When he calls and he hears the baby's crying, he tells his wife: "That's the cry I want to hear every single day."
Correction (Dec. 13, 2017): Rahim Mohamed's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. The article has been updated.
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