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Fate of hundreds of Somalis is in hands of appeals court
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Osman Sahardeed, right, assistant executive director of the Somali Community of Minnesota, says he's looking forward to the appeals court's ruling. (MPR Photo/Mary Losure)
In St. Paul a federal appeals court heard arguments on Wednesday in a case that could decide the fate of hundreds of Somalis in Minnesota and many more across the United States. The issue is whether the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service can deport Somalis to their home country despite the fact that Somalia has no functioning government.

St. Paul, Minn. — The case concerns a Somali man, Keyse Jama, who was convicted under Minnesota law of third degree assault and given a one year sentence. He completed it two and a half years ago. Ever since , he's been held in INS custody. Now the INS wants to deport him.

Both sides of the case agree that civil war has thrown Somalia into anarchy, and the country now has no government that can accept deportees, but the INS argues that doesn't matter.

Justice Department Attorney Greg Mack told the appeals court that certain provisions of a 1996 immigration law allow the agency to deport people to their country of birth, even if that country has not agreed to accept them.

Arguing for the other side, attorney Jeffrey Keyes said deporting Jama to Somalia would be a clear violation of the overall body of the law. He said a key ruling in the 1950s estabished that the INS cannot deport people to countries that don't accept them.

In that case, the noted Justice Learned Hand ruled a Chinese man could not be deported to Communist China.

Justice Department Attorney Greg Mack declined to comment after the arguments.

Jama's attorneys argued the case pro bono at the request of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights.

Attorney Kevin Magnusen says they took the case because they felt the INS was in clear violation of the law, and because they were shocked by how the INS was carrying out the deportations.

"It was too dangerous for them to actually enter the country themselves, so they were either taking them to the border, making them walk into Somalia, or they were trying to fly them in on one way flights. Most recently they hired a private deportation company and they negotiated landing rights with one of the warlords in Mogadishu, and basically put them in a van and dropped them off in downtown Mogadishu and the INS has no way of verifying how these people are treated when they arrive," according to Magnusen.

The BBC has reported that one recent deportee from the U.S. was captured and killed in Mogadishu.

They said he cannot be released and he cannot get a court date, and no bond set up for him, no bail... We don't come here for that.
- Amina Sowe

Human rights groups estimate that nationwide, more than 2,000 Somalis face deportation. Some have committed crimes. Others are simply out of compliance with INS regulations.

Several hundred of the potential deportees are in Minnesota, which is home to one of the nation's largest Somali community.

Several dozen Somali leaders and community members attended the hearing. Osman Sahardeed, assistant executive director of the Somali Community of Minnesota, says he's looking forward to the appeals court's ruling.

"We have our faith and belief within the law system, and we really think that the system and the law is on our side," said Sahardeed.

Lawyers for Keyse Jama say if the court rules that the INS cannot legally deport Jama to Somalia, then subsequent court decisions could determine whether he can ultimately be freed.

In the meantime, Somalis who face deportation remain in legal limbo.

Amina Sowe, whose husband was arrested in early January, says he has been charged with no crime, but faces deportation because he failed to show up for a hearing on his refugee status. Now he's in indefinite detention.

"They said he cannot be released, and he cannot get a court date, and no bond set up for him, no bail. They just going to keep him there or what? No deport, and no release. We don't like for that to happen. We don't come here for that," she said.

Jama's case was the first of several challenges to INS deportations to Somalia, so the appeals court ruling in Minnesota is expected to set a precedent cases around the country.

Last month a Seattle judge suspended Somali deportations nationwide while she considers a similar case there. The Minnesota ruling is expected in late spring or early summer.

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