No Place Like Home

Thousands of Somalis fled when their country committed suicide a decade ago. Now the local INS office has found a way to send them back.

Cassidy noted that while some Somali refugees are temporarily protected from deportation because of the civil strife in their homeland, Hassan was not, because he'd arrived well after the civil war began. "In abundance of fairness," he ruled, the court would overlook the "serious violations of immigration laws" Hassan had committed by sneaking into the country, and delay deportation for 90 days.

Understandably, Hassan was underwhelmed by the abundance of Cassidy's fairness. Though his legal options were running out, he still had one chance to remain in the country. If he could successfully challenge the immigration judge's decision, he might win permission to stay in America at least until the political situation in Somalia had calmed. So, in February 1997, Hassan filed a petition with the immigration court's Board of Immigration Appeals. Though he didn't know it, precedent favored his case: In a 1996 decision involving a nearly identical situation, the board had determined both that fear of clan-based violence constitutes a legitimate basis for an asylum claim and that "compelling humanitarian considerations" could mitigate immigration court decisions.

Around the same time, Hassan secured a temporary work permit. He heard from a friend that Minneapolis was a good place to look for a job, and he moved north. He dutifully filed a change of address with the INS, but, thinking that the INS and immigration court were one and the same, he failed to notify the board of appeals.

When he arrived in Minnesota, Hassan was told to check in with the INS office in Bloomington once a month. "They said, 'Don't commit no crime, and you'll have no trouble with us,'" he says.

Hassan enrolled in classes at Hennepin Technical College, found computer work at the Carlson Companies, and, later, a third-shift job at Traveler's Express in St. Louis Park. At the last job, he was an exemplary employee, he says, and, in April, was scheduled for a promotion. Meanwhile, and also unbeknownst to Hassan, the Board of Immigration Appeals had dismissed his petition because its officials couldn't contact him. The immigration court issued an order of deportation, and, when Hassan went in for his monthly check-in, an officer made him quit his job on the spot. For Hassan, who had meticulously built up a professional reputation, the ensuing conversation was humiliating. "My boss was very disappointed," he recalls with a suddenly mournful expression. "He told me, 'I had a plan for you.' I felt so terrible because it was such short notice. It wasn't right. I said, 'I hope you can understand it's not me.'"

Hassan's life was thrown into chaos again--this time by a bureaucratic snafu.

 

Outside the headquarters of the Somali Community of Minnesota in south Minneapolis, a clump of new Americans are chatting, enjoying the midmorning sun and watching a backhoe take giant bites out of Franklin Avenue. Inside, Mohamed Essa Dhiff is settling in for a long day. His office--unadorned white cinder-block walls and towers of paperwork--and his stylish earth-toned suit present a contrast to the buzz of voices and silky traditional Somali garb that predominate in the crowded waiting room. Essa is almost always busy; the Somali Community, which he and his wife founded ten years ago, is the largest such organization in the nation, offering services ranging from employment referral and domestic counseling to English classes and advice in negotiating the labyrinth of U.S. immigration law.

Essa's modest community center has become a sort of Staten Island for Somalis in Minnesota, and, since 1991, Essa has seen successive waves of Somali immigrants come through his office. He has, he says, heard hundreds of stories like Abdul Hassan's. The details vary and the faces change, but the circumstances are painfully familiar: a nightmare litany of lost children, murdered friends, and despoiled lives. "In the refugee camps," he says, "there was no health care, no schooling, no sanitation. Though people were safer, life was hard. Kenyan officials asked for bribes. Women were taken and raped. It was worse in some ways than war."

Despite the traumatic history of Somalia, however, its emigrants have flourished in Minnesota. Drawn at first by the prospect of jobs in rural turkey-processing factories, Essa explains, thousands of Somalis gravitated to the Twin Cities. Immigration to the state peaked in the mid-Nineties, and there are now 55,000 Somalis living in the area--the largest enclave in the United States. Despite language barriers, Essa continues, Somalis were quick to join the work force. "There are 200 Somali businesses now," he says. "I'm proud of my people. They are very hard-working."

Yet it hasn't been easy. According to Essa, young Somalis here are often caught in a profound clash of cultures. In addition, non-English-speaking immigrants are often at a loss to understand the asylum process. "There are a few illegal Somalis who are afraid to go and seek asylum," he says. "They have no hope for immigration because they think they will be deported. It's disastrous. They worry, get ulcers. They risk everything to join their loved ones, and they're deported back."

As in Hassan's case, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that few Somalis arrive with proper identification--it has been impossible to get a birth certificate or passport in Somalia for a decade, and some rural people are not even sure of their birth dates. Though Essa's organization offers affidavits to support the claims of Somali asylum-seekers, he asserts that the INS tends to view the absence of proof of identity as a sign of fraud. Along with recent changes in immigration law, that makes it easy for the INS to deport people who make mistakes or who are unable to substantiate their stories.

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