Return to Sender

No way out: Keyse Jama has been imprisoned for more than three years as federal authorities have attempted to deport him to Somalia
Courtesy of Hennepin County Sheriff's Office

Shortly after 4:00 a.m. on June 25, 1999, two police officers arrived at an apartment complex in Waseca to investigate a disturbance. In the parking lot, according to the criminal complaint, the cops discovered three Somali men who had been stabbed with a knife. Each of the stabbing victims fingered the same person as their assailant: a Somali refugee named Keyse Jama.

Jama eventually pleaded guilty to felony third-degree assault, although he denied stabbing the men. He was sentenced to one year in prison, a punishment he finished serving in June 2000. But rather than walking out of prison at the end of his sentence, Jama was detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Since 1996, the government has had the authority under federal law to deport foreign-born residents who have been convicted of serious crimes. Authorities determined that Jama should be sent back to Somalia, the war-ravaged country he left more than a decade earlier, when he was just 11 years old.

There was just one problem: Somalia is the only nation in the world that the U.S. Department of State categorizes as having no functioning government. Since civil war broke out in 1991, the East African country has been plagued by clan warfare and chaos. Generally the U.S. will only deport someone to a country that is willing to accept the person, but in this case there is no recognized government to give its blessing. Consequently, more than three years after the 24-year-old refugee was slated to be released, he's still being held in the state prison at Rush City.

"It's very difficult for him to understand why he's in this position and what his fate will be," says Jeff Keyes, one of Jama's attorneys. If Jama continues to fight his deportation in the courts, he faces the possibility of continued imprisonment. On the other hand, if he agrees to return to Somalia, the future will offer few prospects other than fear, violence, and poverty.

Last month it looked as though Jama might finally be allowed to leave prison. On October 24, citing a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision establishing that potential deportees can't be detained indefinitely, U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim ordered that Jama be released within three days.

But the Department of Justice instead decided to deport Jamal to Somalia. Two days after Tunheim's decision, government officials were set to transport the refugee to Hageysa, a city in northwestern Somalia that Jama's never set foot in. Given the high level of clan hostilities, Keyes says Jama "was in desperate fear for his life."

Tunheim again intervened. The judge ordered a last-minute, Sunday afternoon stay of the felon's deportation.

The wrangling over Jama's case underscores an increasing schism between the federal courts and the Justice Department. In January, a U.S. District Court judge in Seattle ruled that, owing to the lack of a viable government, deportations to Somalia are unconstitutional. That ruling was upheld in September by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The decision effectively placed a prohibition on deportations.

But the ruling came with a loophole. Cases already going through the courts in other jurisdictions, like Jama's, are not affected by the Seattle ruling. Michele Garnett McKenzie, director of the refugee and immigrant program at Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, points out that Jama is only one of roughly 15 Somalis who may still be deported, in spite of the prohibition.

Unfortunately for Jama, the federal courts hearing his case are at odds. In March of last year, Tunheim ruled that Jama could not be deported to Somalia, taking the government to task for dumping deportees in a lawless land. However, in May the judge's decision was overturned by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Now, the Jama case will likely make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ramifications will be huge for the local Somali community: According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, there are presently 206 Somali nationals in Minnesota who have been given deportation orders.

The vigilance with which authorities have pursued Jama's deportation, and their refusal to release him from prison, is not entirely surprising given the government's general disregard for civil rights in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. "I think you have to also look at the political climate we're in," says St. Paul immigration attorney Audrey Carr. "John Ashcroft's Justice Department is very rough and very tough and they're not giving anybody a break."

Jama has had few breaks in his life. He fled Mogadishu with his family around 1991. "Because we were Darod we were attacked," he wrote in an application seeking asylum in the U.S, explaining the clan prejudices roiling the country. "Our house was targeted and fired upon." The family trekked to a refugee camp in Kenya. "I remember seeing lots of dead and injured people when we left the country," Jama recalled. He was allowed into the U.S. in February 1996 and joined family members in Minnesota.

The federal government has been mum about recent deportations. As best can be determined, the last group of Somalis deported left the U.S. in February of last year. The group of roughly 30 people included 14 Minnesota residents. Little is known about their fate. "It's been really hard to separate rumor from fact," says Garnett McKenzie, who is also on Jama's legal team.

Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, says that one of the deportees was killed in Mogadishu. He claims that anyone returning to Somalia from the U.S. is assumed to be either wealthy or an American spy, designations that all but guarantee danger, if not death. "Either way he's cooked," Jamal notes.

Perhaps the Supreme Court can untangle the legal mess. Jama has until November 6 to request that the high court hear his case, but by that time he may well be back in Somalia. According to Garnett McKenzie, her client is uncertain if he wants to continue pursuing the matter and face the prospect of further time behind bars. "He's frustrated; he's tired; he is confused," she says, "He's deathly afraid to return to Somalia, but he's seriously considering doing that given what he's facing now."

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