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St. Paul, Minn. — The three men were freed after being detained for periods that ranged from 10 months to a year and a half. Mohamed Mohamed was held for 10 months. When it was finally over, he was philosophical about his experience.
"The whole time was a test," he said. "And every test, when you pass it you look back and take advantage of it. This was a time that for the rest of my life that I can take advantage of it; every failure or every good thing that I did, every failure that I did, just watch. Don't do it again. And the whole year was not so good."
Mohamed and the two others had been detained because the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement wants to deport them. The BICE, which is a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, has taken over some of the functions of what was formerly known as the INS.
But a Seattle judge ruled the former INS can't deport Somalis to their home country, because Somalia has no functioning government that can accept them. So, instead, the agency was holding them indefinitely.
Mohamed was working as a driver for a St. Paul trucking company when he first came under scrutiny. The FBI wanted to interview him because his truck driving license included a hazardous materials certificate.
Mohamed voluntarily reported for an interview, and was taken into INS custody.
"When they took me to INS first, they tell me that I'm going to be shipped into Somalia right away," he told MPR during an interview in early April. "And I never knew that INS could do something like this, put you in jail and just forget you most of your time."
Mohamed had entered the country illegally and was charged with possession of false papers. The second detainee, Ali Omar, faced deportation for similar violations. The third, Abdulkadir Mohamed, had been accused by the INS of admitting to being a gang member.
But volunteer lawyers for the three argued the former INS should not be permitted to hold them indefinitely. They pointed to a 2001 Supreme Court decision known as Zadvydas v. Davis.
In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that if detainees can't be deported in the "reasonably foreseeable future," they must be released after six months.
Justice Stephen Bryer wrote, "A statute permitting the indefinite detention of an alien would raise a serious constitutional problem." Last week, federal Judge Michael Davis of Minnesota's 8th District Court ruled that the Zadvydas case does apply to the three Somalis. He ordered them released under BICE supervision.
But the BICE is still holding about a dozen other Somalis pending deportation. Nine have been held for more than a year.
Attorney Kevin Magnusen says the former INS is forcing lawyers for detainees to litigate for their release case by case.
"They're saying that base level, the INS has the discretion to determine when they release someone and when they detain someone, and the courts or anyone else shouldn't be looking over their shoulder. That's their basic argument," according to Magnusen.
BICE spokesman Tim Counts says the agency has the right to detain the Somalis, because the detainees will be deported in the foreseeable future. The agency has appealed the Seattle judge's ruling that Somalis cannot be deported.
"We firmly believe that the law allows us to deport people to Somalia. We are dealing with the issue in the court of law and we will continue to pursue that," Counts said.
None of the Somali detainees has been accused of any connection to terrorism.
A Washington spokesperson for the BICE declined say how many long-term detainees the agency is holding across the nation, or how many of those are Somali.
Figures collected by a national immigrants' rights group, known as Detention Watch Network, indicate that nationwide, the BICE has more 300 detainees who have been in custody more than six months.