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Somali advocate Omar Jamal arrested
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Omar Jamal is one of the leaders of the Twin Cities' Somali community. (MPR file photo)
The federal government has charged Minnesota Somali activist Omar Jamal with violating immigration rules. The Homeland Security Agency has detained him in the Washington County jail. Jamal also faces criminal charges for the same allegations -- that he lied to the government to get into the country. Jamal could face deportation or prison, depending on the outcome of the government's case against him.

St. Paul, Minn. — The government alleges Omar Jamal lied five years ago in immigration proceedings in Memphis, Tenn. The government says Jamal lied about where else he had lived, and used a fake passport to enter the United States.

Tim Counts, the spokesman for the Homeland Security office in Bloomington, says Jamal faces both immigration and criminal fraud charges.

"One is the criminal issue, which could result in fines or a prison sentence. And we've also charged him with the same fraudulent acts administratively under immigration laws," says Counts. "Those two processes will be running concurrently, and the result of the immigration procedure is his possible loss of status in the U.S. and his removal from the U.S. The possible loss of the criminal process could be fines and/or jail time."

Omar Jamal, 30, is a native of Somalia who has also lived in Kenya and England, among other countries. He left Kenya in l997 and moved to Memphis, according to one account, to live with a cousin. He arrived in the Twin Cities in l999.

Jamal is the executive director of the Somali Justice Center, an advocacy group in St. Paul, where he lives with his wife and three children. He is an outspoken advocate for Somalis, and a frequent critic of their treatment by the U.S. government.

U.S. Attorney Tom Hefflefinger says the allegations and the more than year-long investigation into Jamal's past are not related to his criticism of the government.

"There is no relationship between Mr. Jamal's visibility and the charges he's facing in Tennessee," says Heffelfinger.

Federal officials say it's not unusual for immigrants to face both administrative and criminal charges for alleged immigration violations. Hefflefinger says the number of cases has been rising because of the government's increased scrutiny of immigrants' backgrounds.

MPR was unable to reach Jamal at the Washington County jail. His spokesman, William Mitchell College of Law professor Peter Erlinder, has visted Jamal. He said Jamal denies all the charges made against him. Erlinder says Jamal is seeking both a criminal defense and immigration attorney for his case.

The intensity of Omar Jamal's advocacy for Somalis was visible as recently as last week. Law enforcment officials, including Heffelfinger, invited Somalis to a meeting to talk about problems immigrants have with government. Jamal charged Hefflefinger and other officials with not following up on investigations into cases of police abuse against Somalis.

"And I'd like to remind Thomas Heffelfinger -- part of enforcing the law is to (prosecute). When the federal government is always defensive, trying to find an excuse, a way out, and coming to the community with a smile without (prosecuting) anybody," Jamal said. "There'll be so many cases we can count today, we'll be sitting here 'til tomorrow if I do that, that nobody has been brought charges against."

Hefflefinger said after the hearing that government officials take seriously criticisms directed at them.

Osman Sahardeed, a leader of the Somali Community of Minnesota, another advocacy group, says he and other friends of Jamal are concerned about the family.

Federal officials say Jamal's wife is not charged in the case and is not being detained.

Jamal posted bond Monday on the criminal charges. An immigration spokesman says Jamal is scheduled to appear before an immigration judge later this week, and may be released from detention in the Washington County jail if he can post $10,000 bond. His next court appearance on the criminal charges is April 23 in Memphis.

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