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Criminal Investigation Underway In Somali Deportation Case

U.S. Department of Homeland Security/Wikimedia Commons
Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan

Federal officials have opened criminal investigations related to the controversial attempted deportation of 92 Somali nationals last December, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Somalis are currently being held at several detention centers in South Florida as a federal court case about their attempted removal is ongoing.

In December, an ICE-chartered plane left Louisiana headed towards Africa filled with 92 Somali nationals who had received deportation orders. But the plane stopped in Senegal, where it stayed for 20 hours. The plane then flew back to the United States with all of the Somalis still on board, landing in Miami.

A federal class action lawsuit was filed by the detainees, saying that they were shackled and denied medications while they were on board. Several passengers reported that they were abused by guards while they were in restraints.

“While shackled, some of the individual[s] suffered injuries to their wrists, shoulders, shoulders and ankles, necks and lower backs, as immigration officers hit, pushed, and full-body restrained some,” wrote Steven Symes, an associate professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine who met with detainees shortly after the flight in a sworn affidavit to the federal court. “I understand that the federal government has denied that any injuries occured on the December 7 flight. If this is correct, I believe that the government is incorrect.”

The lawsuit, brought by attorneys from the University of Miami Immigration Clinic and attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union, cited “inhumane conditions” on the flight and sought to stop subsequent deportation of the Somali nationals to Somalia. They argued that conditions in the country are not suitable for repatriation and that the attempted deportation on the airplane had created such a stir in the country that the would-be deportees would be targeted by members of terrorist organization Al-Shabab.

Miami-based Federal District Judge Darrin Gayles halted their deportation shortly after the suit was filed, and later issued extensions. The suit is ongoing.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking flight plans and other documents related to the attempted deportation, ICE officials wrote to WLRN that they could not release any documents, citing the “open status of ongoing criminal investigations” related to the attempted deportation flight. It is not clear who is targeted by the ongoing investigation.

“I wasn't aware that criminal charges were being looked at,” Rebecca Sharpless, a professor with the University of Miami Immigration Clinic who is involved with the lawsuit, wrote in an email to WLRN. “I do not believe that they are looking at criminal charges against the detainees.”

An investigation into what happened on the airplane was launched by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General earlier this year.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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