MIAMI (CN) – A federal judge temporarily blocked the government from deporting a group of Somali immigrants who say they were shackled and handcuffed for two days by immigration officials during a failed deportation attempt last month.
In a ruling issued Friday in Miami federal court, U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles said that the 92 Somali immigrants have the right to reopen their removal orders because they are looking “to apply or re-apply for asylum or withholding of deportation based on changed circumstances arising in the country of nationality or in the country to which deportation has been ordered.”
On Dec. 19, the court held an emergency hearing on the immigrants’ request to temporarily halt their removal. The federal government argued that the court lacked jurisdiction over the case.
However, a few weeks later, Judge Gayles found that the court does have jurisdiction over the case, based on his review of the government’s claims, the petitioners’ complaint and briefs filed with the court.
For decades, Somali nationals were rarely deported from the U.S. mainly because their country lacks a “functioning central government,” according to Gayles’ 14-page ruling, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement began deporting Somalis more often after changes to U.S. policies last year under the Trump administration.
According to court records, ICE tried to deport the petitioners in the case on Dec. 7, shackling them on a chartered airplane from a Louisiana detention center to Somalia.
“The flight landed in Dakar, Senegal, for refueling,” Gayles’ ruling states. “While accounts differ as to whether the plane remained grounded due to mechanical or crew-rest issues, it is not disputed that the plane remained grounded at the Dakar airport for approximately 23 hours. For unclear reasons, the flight could not continue to Somalia and was forced to return to the Untied States.”
The Somali nationals claim they were bound and shackled during the entire 48-hour trip, which included the 23-hour holdover and a return trip to Miami. They say they were subjected to “inhumane conditions and egregious abuse” while the plane sat on the runway in Senegal.
The immigrants argue that the international media attention surrounding the botched deportation has made it unsafe for them to return to Somalia because they would be targets of the extremist group Al-Shabaab, which believes that people returning to Somalia after living in Western nations for a long period of time are enemies of their cause.
The extremist group is suspected of being behind an Oct. 14 bomb attack in the Somali capital of Mogadischu that killed over 500 people. In retaliation, the United States launched a series of bombing raids targeting the group’s strongholds.
U.S. law prohibits the deportation of individuals to countries where they could face political persecution or torture.
“Petitioners assert that their immigration circumstances have changed based on the escalation of Al-Shabaab-related violence in Somalia and the government’s failed attempt to repatriate them to Somalia,” the ruling states.
According to Judge Gayles’ opinion, people who have deportation orders from the U.S. have the right to file a motion to reopen their immigration cases in certain circumstances.
“The court finds troubling that the government would seek to immediately re-remove petitioners when their claims arose, in great part, from the government’s own alleged misconduct,” the judge wrote. “Petitioners cannot effectively pursue motions to reopen from Somalia where they would likely be forced underground to avoid persecution immediately upon arrival. The court is unpersuaded by the government’s position that petitioners can meaningfully pursue a motion to reopen from Somalia.”
Judge Gayles added that even though the court acknowledges the executive branch’s power to execute removal orders, it finds that it has jurisdiction and can act upon the case to “prevent an unlawful exercise of that discretion against these specific petitioners.”
For that reason, he ruled that the federal government is temporarily enjoined from removing the 92 Somalis until the court issues an order on their motion for an injunction.
The next hearing in the case is set for Feb. 1.
Lisa Lehner, a senior litigation attorney with Americans for Immigrant Justice, said in a statement that “the court’s thorough review of what it termed the ‘exceptional circumstances’ of this case reveals a depth of understanding of the plight of these individuals.”
The Somali immigrants are represented by Americans for Immigrant Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union, University of Miami Law Clinic, University of Minnesota Law School’s Center for New Americans and Broward Legal Aid.