'A lot of pain': Somalis allege abuse by immigration detention guards

Immigration lawyers have filed a complaint against a Florida detention center, alleging guards pepper-sprayed, shackled and used excessive force on Somali detainees and called them racial slurs, including the N-word.

In the early morning of Dec. 9, immigration enforcement agents transported 92 Somalis — including some Minnesota residents — to two centers in Florida. At least 42 of them were taken to Glades Detention Center in south-central Florida.

The detainees were sent out of the country on Dec. 7, bound for their native Somalia but never made it. Logistical problems forced the flight to return to the United States after a brief stop in the West African country of Senegal, according to immigration law enforcement agents.

Lawyers, who filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the Somali detainees, allege that federal immigration agents physically and verbally abused detainees during that time.

MPR News is Member Supported

What does that mean? The news, analysis and community conversation found here is funded by donations from individuals. Make a gift of any amount today to support this resource for everyone.

On Monday, a federal judge in Miami extended a temporary hold on the deportation of these 92 men and women who were arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents across the country in recent months.

Lawyers from the Legal Aid Service of Broward County, Immigration Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law and Americans for Immigrant Justice Monday evening filed a complaint against Glades to the federal Department of Homeland Security's acting inspector general saying facility staff have "failed to treat our clients with humanity and even the most basic respect for the dignity of another human being."

Workers at Glades, which has a contract with the federal immigration agency, "have subjected our clients to abuse, both verbal and physical, have denied them medical and mental health care, and have employed harsh and punitive measures inappropriate to civil detention, disproportionate to any alleged offense, and in retaliation for complaints," the lawyers said in the complaint as they pressed for an investigation.

"ICE is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody," U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Nestor Yglesias said in a statement to MPR News. "ICE has a strict zero-tolerance policy for any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior in its facilities and takes any allegation seriously. ICE ensures facilities operate in compliance with its rigorous national detention standards through an aggressive inspection program."

John Bruning, an attorney with the Kim Hunter Law firm in St. Paul that has two clients on the returned flight, traveled to Miami last week to help with the ongoing litigation since his firm has experience with Somali immigration cases. He interviewed eight Somali detainees at Glades.

On Jan. 2, Bruning spoke with 32-year-old Mohamud Hassan from Minnesota. When guards brought him in the interviewing room, Hassan was in a five-point restraint. His handcuffs were attached to a waist chain and his feet were chained.

In a sworn statement included in the complaint, Hassan said he had failed back surgery in the summer and still has a wound from the surgery. During the botched Dec. 7 flight, Hassan said he explained to a guard that he stood up because his back hurt. "The guard body-slammed me and put his knee in my back right where my surgery wound is," he wrote in the affidavit. "He did it on purpose, after I told him about my back."

At Glades, Hassan said he was given a pain medicine and muscle relaxer but later got into an argument with an officer about his pain treatment.

"The officer wouldn't listen and made moves to body-slam and tackle me to the ground," Hassan wrote. "I tried to warn the officers about my back and went down on the ground voluntarily, but then the officer stomped on my back, right on my surgery wound."

"He also punched me in the face and beat me while other officers and a Lieutenant watched," added Hassan, who was later placed in a segregated unit for 30 days. He added, "I am in a lot of pain."