Omar, immigration lawyers raise alarm over Somali deportations

Advocates say a flight this week to Mogadishu may include passengers with COVID-19, which would be ‘absolutely catastrophic’ for Somalia

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and immigration attorneys said the deportation flight could be as early as Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and immigration attorneys said the deportation flight could be as early as Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 16, 2020 at 12:57pm

A deportation flight scheduled for Somalia this week may include passengers with COVID-19 symptoms, according to immigration lawyers, advocates and at least one congressional lawmaker, raising new concerns the United States may be exporting the coronavirus to other countries.  

The flight, which could take off as early as Wednesday, is expected to carry roughly 90 people, according to advocates who spoke to CQ Roll Call. Most are Somali nationals from Minnesota, which has the biggest Somali immigrant community in the country. Lawyers and advocates fear most are not being adequately tested.

“We have now learned that at least one detainee has tested positive for COVID-19 and that others are showing symptoms,” Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday. 

“Let’s be clear — deporting people who have COVID-19 is pure cruelty — not just for the individuals themselves, but for the countless who could contract the illness. And we know that ICE has done this before.” 

Omar first brought attention to the situation in a letter she sent last week to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that expressed “grave concerns” and asked a series of questions about the impending flight.

ICE did not respond directly to questions about the Somalis being prepared for deportation.

“Due to operational security, we are only able to confirm removal flights once they have landed in a designated country,” an agency spokesperson said by email, later adding: "Once the flight has landed, I will be able to track if anyone on board was tested."

ICE expects each country to meet its international obligation to accept its own nationals, the spokesperson said. “The health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities. Since the onset of COVID-19, ICE has regularly updated infection prevention and control protocols to help prevent potential exposure among detainees.”

The spokesperson said ICE has been screening individuals scheduled to be deported for elevated temperatures since March, and provides masks to wear for the duration of the flight, but did not note any screening procedures for asymptomatic individuals.

Omar noted that Somalia, which has only 15 intensive care unit beds for a population of 15 million, has refused to take deportees who are positive for COVID-19.

“If ICE tries to deport people who don’t have recent negative tests, they’re violating their agreement with the Somali government,” she said. “The consequences could be absolutely catastrophic.” 

Kim Hunter, an immigration lawyer based in St. Paul, Minn., said a group of immigrants with deportation orders was moved two weeks ago from Minnesota to the Catahoula Correctional Facility in Louisiana and are awaiting flights this week to Mogadishu.

According to ICE’s public tally, there have been 119 COVID-19 cases at the Louisiana facility since February, and two people currently confirmed with the virus are under observation. Hunter said one of her clients was tested for the virus last week after experiencing flu-like symptoms but had not received the results of the test as of Tuesday.

“This is so grim, but the best outcome would be a sufficient number of people are ill with COVID-19 so that it makes it unprofitable to take this flight and they have to ground it,” Hunter said. 

John Bruning, a Minneapolis-based staff attorney with Advocates for Human Rights, also has spoken to Somali clients who said they felt sick. Some, he said, had tested negative last week, but were not given new tests after they started showing additional symptoms.

“Everyone is scared and clueless about what’s happening down there, and so are we as attorneys,” he said. “If they don’t already have COVID-19, they’re going to get it before they get to Somalia.”

Claire Chevrier, a lawyer with the ACLU of Ohio, has been in touch with four clients from her state who are now at the Louisiana staging facility. She said two of them were born and raised outside of Somalia, and only have Somali citizenship through lineage. They are being deported to a place where they have no ties because of a determination by ICE, she said. 

ICE has already faced significant criticism this year about how it has handled the pandemic, particularly over the way it has transferred detainees between centers and abroad.

The Washington Post reported last week that a charter flight from Arizona carrying detainees and ICE employees fueled a COVID-19 outbreak at an agency facility in Virginia that infected 300 immigrants, including one who died. In July, Reuters reported that its analysis of court documents found ICE had conducted at least 268 transfers of detainees between its centers from April through June. 

Earlier this year, the Guatemala government reported that the U.S. had sent dozens of deportees who tested positive for the virus right after arrival. In June, Haitian authorities reported similar findings among the few deportees it had received from the United States.

The flight to Somalia, however, would be the first outside the Western Hemisphere since the start of the pandemic, Bruning said.

Somalia has experienced civil conflict for the last 30 years, said Mustafa Jamale of the Black Immigrant Collective in Minnesota. He noted the U.S. government recognized this earlier this year by extending Temporary Protected Status for Somali nationals for another 18 months. 

“There’s no health infrastructure in Somalia,” he said. “We really think it’s an inhumane act that the U.S. is engaging in.”