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Interview changes Somali immigrant's life
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Mohamed Mohamed says there is one thing he couldn't help regretting: the fact he'd ever set foot in the United States. (MPR Photo/Mary Losure)
The war on terror has changed the lives of immigrants across America. For a young Somali truck driver in St. Paul named Mohamed Mohamed, it's meant an open-ended stay in a Minnesota prison. Now, he faces the prospect of years more.

St. Paul, Minn. — It was summer 2002, and Mohamed Mohamed had been in this country five years when the boss at the St. Paul trucking firm where he worked told him the FBI wanted to see him.

"They were calling myre boss, saying that 'we are FBI, we're investigating for every Muslim driver who's driving a truck,'" Mohamed remembers. "I said I don't want to get in trouble with the FBI, so I just came right away. I say, 'I'm home, I've got time, I'm going to come down to your office.'"

Authorities wanted to see Mohamed because his truck driver's license included a hazardous materials certification. At the time, there was concern that trucks loaded with hazardous materials could be used in a terrorist attack. Mohamed's boss told the officer that Mohamed hauled only non-hazardous materials, but the matter didn't end there.

There may be a sort of a gut level feeling like they kind of deserve the treatment they get. But the law says something different. The law is clear that they can't be sent to Somalia, and the law is clear that if they can't be deported in six months; they have to be released.
- Atty. Kevin Magnuson

That’s because Mohamed has a past. His lawyer, Kevin Magnuson, admits it. When Mohamed first entered this country, he broke the law. He was 23. He had fled civil war in Somalia. He'd ended up in the Netherlands and stayed there for three years, unable to find a job. "So he essentially rented a passport from somebody else who was a Dutch citizen, flew into Minneapolis-St. Paul, went through the immigration checkpoint, (and) got admitted into the country," says Magnuson.

Mohamed's past included other misdeeds as well. He had lied to what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS, which has now been absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security. Mohamed told them he had entered the U.S. from Mexico, because he didn't want to be sent back to the Netherlands. He applied for asylum in the U.S.. A judge turned him down, and ordered him deported. He went underground, and used false papers to get work.

So when his boss at the trucking firm called him that summer day in 2002 and Mohamed hurried down for his interview, he was soon in big trouble. He was arrested and taken to INS headquarters, then sent to a Minnesota state prison outside the small town of Rush City.

There, a cement-floored corridor leads through a series of steel doors. Narrow, slot-like windows look out a steel fence topped by concertina wire. The corridor leads to a hearing room deep inside, where Mohamed spoke with a reporter.

"When they took me to the INS first, they tell me that I'm going to be shipped into Somalia right away. And I never knew the INS could do something like this, just put you in jail and forget you for most of your time," he said. Mohamed wore a prison uniform with a nametag that read "detainee" to distinguish him from the regular inmates. But although immigration officials could detain him, they couldn't deport him, because human rights lawyers had gone to court to stop it. Lawyers for Mohammed argued that Somalia is a perilous country ruled by rival warlords, with no functioning government that can accept deportees.

So Mohamed went to meals with the other prisoners and lined up every day to be counted. Guards checked him in and out of his cell. "If you knew that one day you're going to get out, if you know you're supposed to serve a time, you know, I mean everyday you're counting that you'll go soon," he said. "But when you don't know when you will get out, it's very tough."

Then, in April 2003, 10 months after he was taken into custody, Mohamed's life changed suddenly. A federal judge in Minnesota's district court ordered Mohamed and two other Somalis released. The judge cited a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found the indefinite detention of aliens is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled that if detainees can't be deported in the "reasonably foreseeable future," they must be released after six months. So Mohamed was given his possessions in a plastic bag and bussed to the former INS's headquarters in Bloomington where friends and relatives of the three detainees crowded into a cramped waiting room in the agency's basement.

Mohamed has no wife or children. He spoke first to the lawyers, including Kevin Magnuson, waiting to greet him. "You did it, finally," said Mohamed.

"Finally is the key word," replied Magnuson. "But we were successful. I guess the important thing is it may take awhile, but the system works."

For Kevin Magnuson, taking Mohamed's case was matter of principle. In his ordinary job, Magnuson is an attorney at the corporate law firm Briggs and Morgan, but he's spent many hundreds of hours working pro bono on the cases of Mohamed and five other Somalis who have been held in indefinite detention in Minnesota. All face deportation for past crimes or immigration violations.

Nationwide, more than 2,000 Somalis face deportation. The number in detention is believed to be much smaller, although the Department of Homeland Security declines to give figures. The agency is fighting in court for the right to detain Somalis indefinitely and then deport them, and Magnuson believes that's wrong. "There may be a sort of a gut level feeling like they kind of deserve the treatment they get," he says, "but the law says something different. The law is clear that they can't be sent to Somalia, and the law is clear that if they can't be deported in six months, they have to be released."

Magnuson also believes the course the government is pursuing is bad policy.

"In the situation where the INS is sending people back to Somalia, Eritrea, (with) all these different countries that have a lot of poverty, are unstable, where we think that maybe Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are working there. Why would you want to take a person who's been in the United States for 15 years, speaks English, knows where everything is, knows how the system works, knows how to get documents, get them really really angry, and then send them back there?"

"I think that's selling the Somali community short," responds Tim Counts, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "To suggest that someone would turn to terrorism because he had been legally detained for crimes he had committed against the United States is a stretch." Counts says when immigration courts order people removed from the country, the agency has a legal obligation to carry that out, and in cases where officials can't do that immediately, they sometimes have to hold people for extended periods.

"We have a long track record of experience with releasing people while they are awaiting deportation," Counts says. "The fact of the matter is the vast majority of people we release, whether its on bond or their own recognizance, abscond. They become fugitives. They don't show up. And in fact Mr. Mohamed has done exactly that in the past."

A few weeks after his release from prison, Mohamed was living with friends. He'd gotten his old job back. In his friend's apartment, the windows were open to the spring afternoon. The rooms were nearly bare except for a couch, a chair, and a wide screen TV. Mohamed had with him only a small, nylon backpack.

The news from his lawyers wasn't good. Immigration officials had appealed his release. They had asked the court for permission to take him back into custody until he could be sent to Somalia.

"It's such thing that they could keep me forever, 'til my country get government. And who knows when my country is going to get government?" he asked. "They're out of government for 13 years now."

Mohamed has never been accused of terrorism. The Department of Homeland Security required him to drop his hazardous materials certification. They never told him why, but he guesses it’s because he is a Muslim.

But Mohamed said he was starting to see that everything that happened to him had been the will of God, even his long stretch in prison. "See, when I was going there, spiritually I was not real good at my religion," he explained. "But when I got there I had an opportunity, a lot of books, Islamic books, and I got the time. So I see, myself, that that was God's gift for me to go to in that jail and have all this time and learn."

Mohamed said he wasn't angry. He said he tried not to regret anything, because Muslim men are not supposed to regret. But there was one thing he couldn't help regretting: the fact he'd ever set foot in the United States. "The only thing that always eats me in my heart, is why would I come in the first place in United States? Why would I come to jail on my own? That's the only thing that kills me inside of me, why would I come in the first place?"

At the time, Mohamed's lawyers were hoping he could be sent back to the Netherlands. He had told them he had once had asylum there. They were working to find the documentation that would prove that. But Mohamed said was thinking of seeking asylum in Canada.

"Even though I've never been there, but I see it's coming to my head that its going to be all right, and they're going to be accepting me right away and let me go inside their country. They will let me have freedom inside their country and I will start all over again. Yeah. Start a new life all over."

While he tried to decide what to do, Mohamed worked at his old job as a truck driver.

The trucking firm where Mohamed got his old job back has moved to a new office in Minneapolis. It's on the second floor of a Somali mall, a maze of closet-sized stores crammed with bright fabric and other goods. Upstairs, Somali entrepreneurs run other small businesses. Abdi Asser sits at his computer screen, lining up hauling jobs for the firms seven semi-trucks. He says Mohamed is a good driver and a hard worker. The two men are friends and they're related on their mothers' side. Asser says once, Mohammed planned to buy his own truck.

"The guy who owned the company was telling him, he can get him for a truck, for a dealer he know. So he can get a down payment, and then he will continue the payment. But since then, he went in jail."

Asser can tell from the computer screen where the trucks are at a given time. He's says right now, Mohamed's taking a load into Maryland, but he doubts Mohamed will be driving much longer, knowing that at any moment he could be taken back into custody.

"Right now, he's kind of (demoralized). He don't have no morale. You can't ask him what he's thinking, because you know what he's thinking," says Asser.

In early June, Mohamed's attorney Kevin Magnuson got a phone call. Mohamed was in Ontario, Canada, calling to say he'd made a bid for asylum.

If his asylum request is not granted, Canada could return him to immigration custody in the U.S, or deport him to Somalia. He has been released on bond in Canada while that country considers his case.

He has little chance of returning to the Netherlands. Neither the Bureau of Homeland Security nor his lawyers have been able to find any evidence that he was ever given asylum there. He is, as his lawyers have learned, a complicated person, rootless and stateless, and traveling light.

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