Hope You Enjoyed Your Stay

A landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision sends a Minnesota detainee back to Somalia

Keyse Jama's four-year battle to stay in the United States ended in defeat last week. The United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, determined that the 25-year-old native of Somalia can be returned to his war-torn homeland. At any moment Jama could be put on an airplane and whisked away to the country that he hasn't set foot in since he was 11 years old.

Jama, who has been in prison since a felony assault conviction in 1999, has hardly had an easy time of it here, but he can't be looking forward to going home. (He served his one-year sentence on the assault conviction, and since then has been detained by immigration authorities; see "Return to Sender," 11/05/03.) The Jama decision, however, will have ramifications far beyond the Somalia native's own bleak future. The Supreme Court ruling clears the way for the government to begin deporting a massive backlog of other Somalis who have been ordered out of the country.

The case hinged on the semantic issue of whether U.S. law mandates that a country "accept" a person before they can be deported. Justice Antonin Scalia, the court's most outspoken conservative, penned the majority opinion. "To infer an absolute rule of acceptance where Congress has not clearly set it forth would run counter to our customary policy of deference to the President in matters of foreign affairs," he wrote. Essentially, Scalia argued, the executive branch has the power to stop a deportation if it so desires, and the court should not usurp that power.

Unhappy trails: Keyse Jama faces a precarious future in Somalia
Kevin M. Magnuson
Unhappy trails: Keyse Jama faces a precarious future in Somalia

Whatever the majority's judicial reasoning, the practical fallout from the opinion will likely be that thousands of people will be sent back to a highly volatile country with no government. Since civil war broke out in 1991, Somalia has been beset by clan warfare and chaos. It is the only country in the world that the U.S. does not recognize as having a functional government.

"Behind this narrow interpretation of a statute, what underlies this case are significant issues about how our country is going to treat problems involving international human rights," says Jeff Keyes, the Minneapolis lawyer who represented Jama at the Supreme Court. "When you take refugees and you send them out of the United States and into a situation like this where they are put in harm's way, that raises significant issues about what our country is about."

The ruling was handed down less than a week after prominent local Somali activist Omar Jamal was convicted in federal court of lying to immigration officials. Jamal is appealing the conviction, but he now also faces the prospect of deportation. The court rulings have led to widespread unease in Minnesota's Somali community. The state is now home to roughly 20,000 Somalis, thought to be the largest such concentration in the country.

According to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, at the end of last year there were 3,568 Somali residents nationwide who, like Jama, have been issued final deportation orders. In addition, there are some 4,000 Somalis whom the government is trying to deport, but whose cases are currently tied up in the courts.

The overwhelming majority of the people who will be affected by the Supreme Court ruling are not violent criminals. Only 230 of the Somali natives currently under deportation orders are subject to removal owing to felony convictions. The rest have been ordered out of the country for other reasons, primarily immigration violations, such as overstaying a student visa or falsifying information.

Manny Van Pelt, a spokesman for the federal immigration agency, maintains that strict enforcement of such rules is necessary to protect the country. "The same avenues that are exploited by individuals, regardless of country of origin, are the same gaps that can be exploited by criminal enterprises and terrorists," he says.

 

Despite such war-on-terror rhetoric, the courts have been starkly divided on the legality of deporting U.S. residents to Somalia. Jama initially prevailed in U.S. District Court, with Judge John Tunheim blocking his deportation in March of 2003. But that decision was subsequently overturned on appeal. At the same time, a similar case, Ali v. Ashcroft, was working its way through the courts in Seattle. In January 2003, a U.S. District Court judge there ruled that deportations to Somalia were unconstitutional and issued a stay prohibiting further removals. That ruling was upheld in September by a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Attorney Karol Brown, who is representing Ali, says that last week's Supreme Court decision will almost certainly lead to the Ninth Circuit opinion being overturned. And she sees little chance of the top court revisiting the issue anytime soon. "It's unlikely that the Supreme Court would take the [Ali] case so soon after their decision in Jama because it basically decided the issue," Brown concedes. "Our only hope is a new Congress, new justices on the Supreme Court, or a new president, and none of those things are going to happen in the near future."

The U.S. immigration officials will not say when they will begin deporting Jama and other natives of Somalia, or where exactly within the country they will be sent. But no matter what the scenario, their prospects are grim. The last person to be deported from Minnesota was Mahad Mohamed Omar in March of last year. He went voluntarily rather than remain in jail. Little is known about his fate or that of others who preceded him. At least one person who was deported is believed to have been killed.

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