Federal judge claims jurisdiction over Somali deportation case

A federal judge in Miami ruled Friday that his court has jurisdiction to hear a lawsuit challenging the deportation of 92 Somalis who are in detention centers in Florida.

The undocumented men and women were on a botched deportation flight on Dec. 7 bound for Somalia that was rerouted back to the U.S. after it made a stop in the West African country of Senegal.

U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles had extended several times a temporary hold on the deportation of the Somalis, saying he needed time to weigh whether he has jurisdiction over the case. The government had argued that the court doesn't have jurisdiction to hear the detainees' cases.

In December, several detainees on the flight filed a class action lawsuit that claimed the men and women should not be deported because of the escalation of violence carried out by the terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's failed attempt to send them to the East African nation.

Some of those on the flight said in the lawsuit that immigration agents physically and verbally abused them during the flight, which lasted for 40 hours, including 23 hours when the flight was on the ground at an airport in the Senegalese capital of Dakar.

"Based on the unique circumstances of this case, including the botched flight, the resulting news coverage, and escalation of violence in Somalia, the Court finds it has limited jurisdiction to ensure Petitioners are able to exercise rights afforded to them under U.S. law," Gayles wrote in his ruling on Friday.

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The detainees have requested the court stay their removal so they could apply to "reopen their removal cases to assert claims for asylum, withholding of removal, or relief under" the international convention against torture, according to a court document.

The government has argued that the Somalis could try to reopen their cases from Somalia. But Gayles said that was impossible.

"The Court finds troubling that the government would seek to immediately re-remove Petitioners when their claims arose, in great part, from the government's own alleged misconduct," Gayles wrote. "Petitioners cannot effectively pursue motions to reopen from Somalia where they would likely be forced underground to avoid persecution immediately upon arrival. The Court is unpersuaded by the government's position that Petitioners can meaningfully pursue a motion to reopen from Somalia. It is unclear how Petitioners could access their immigration files or witnesses in the United States with relevant information pertaining to the December 7th flight, all the while attempting to avoid persecution in Somalia."

A status conference on the case is scheduled for Feb. 1 at 10 a.m. at the United States District Court in Miami.