On-again, off-again deportation flight is off again

A previously postponed charter flight to deport about 100 Somalis, Sudanese and Congolese immigrants back to Africa has been rescheduled again, lending yet more anxiety and confusion to an already stress-filled situation.

The Somali Embassy in Washington confirmed Thursday that a flight that was set to take off Friday had been rescheduled "due to weather delays." According to lawyers and families of the detainees, they were set to fly to South Sudan because neighboring countries Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti weren't giving landing permission.

About 40 of the detainees are Somali, many of them from the Twin Cities. This is the first flight scheduled to deport Somalis since a mission to deport 92 other Somalis failed in December and returned to the United States after sitting in Senegal for 23 hours. Those 92 remain in the United States as legal proceedings continue.

The most recent group of immigrants is being held in the West Texas Detention Center in Sierra Blanca after being picked up from around the country.

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The flight had been set to take off Wednesday, Feb. 28, according to attorneys and family members, but then was rescheduled for Friday. An operator with the embassy said there is a list of Somali deportees set to fly back "sometime in March."

"We never seem to know where he's going or when he's leaving," said Marly Melsh of Minneapolis, whose fiance is one of the Somali detainees. "And they tend to do it in the middle of the night."

A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said the agency doesn't provide advance notification of its deportation schedules for operational security reasons.

But immigration attorneys say the government's practice of rushing to deport people denies them due process and the opportunity to investigate their options. Some of the detainees have defenses that could keep them in the country.

Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director of the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, has a client who's part of this group. She said he entered the United States from Mexico and asked for asylum, but he never had a chance to go before an immigration judge.

"There is no real path to make that case," she said. "It's really alarming."

The detainees are often moved around without easy access to attorneys. John Bruning has a pending case, but said it's been difficult to connect with his client. Even in ideal circumstances, with the client not under detention, the legal process takes time.

"When they move people around it makes it really difficult to represent them and investigate what their options are going to be," Bruning said. "And this is a challenge that we encountered with the last flight."

Many of the Somalis on the flight had prior removal orders, some dating back to the 1990s or early 2000s. They were ordered to check in with ICE regularly in a supervised-release type of program. Recent check-ins, however, have led to their arrests.

Bruning's client was one of those. Bruning said his client fled Somalia in 2009 after al-Shabab threatened him and his brother for refusing to join. He was denied asylum in California and was released on an order of supervision.

President Trump's executive orders last year have given ICE officers discretion to expand the pool of undocumented immigrants they could arrest. It's why the once-routine check-ins have become an opportunity for ICE to find and arrest more undocumented immigrants.

Bloomington immigration attorney Malee Ketelsen-Renner said asylum seekers wouldn't have agreed to their probation deals if they'd known they'd be deported a number of years down the line. They would've stayed in detention and fought their cases.

"Many of these Somalis would not have acquiesced to accepting an order of deportation if they knew removals to Somalia would become a reality," she said. "At the time, they were in removal/deportation proceedings, there was no formal or recognized Somali government. And the U.S. government was not deporting Somalis to Somalia."

Marly Melsh, the fiancee of one of the Somali detainees, said he doesn't have family there and she's having trouble arranging for someone to pick him up because she doesn't know when the flight will take off.

"It's very dangerous to me," she said. "I can't imagine just being dropped off in a country, even if it's a country I'm from. Just dropping me off in California — I wouldn't know what to do."