During a deportation flight to Somalia earlier this month, almost 100 men and women said federal agents left them shackled to their seats for a grueling 46 hours. When they protested the conditions, some were beaten, subjected to death threats, and put in full-body straitjackets, according to a class-action lawsuit filed against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Because of the increasingly high-profile nature of the flight, lawyers representing seven of the passengers asked a federal judge for a temporary pause of their deportation orders on Monday night. As details leak to the press, the argument goes, terror groups like al-Shabaab — which routinely target Somalis with ties to the West — could easily learn of their impending arrival.
ICE, meanwhile, has denied any wrongdoing and wants to send the 92 undocumented immigrants back to Somalia as soon as possible.
“The allegations of ICE mistreatment onboard a Somali flight are categorically false,” an ICE spokesperson told VICE News last week, when allegations about the flight emerged. “No one was injured during the flight, and there were no incidents or altercations that would have caused any injuries on the flight.” ICE declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit.
Two thirds of the passengers had criminal convictions, including homicide and rape, The Guardian reported. Still, many of the 92 detainees have lived in the U.S. for years, have children who are citizens, and have regularly checked in with federal authorities as their asylum and immigration cases wind through the court system.
Their deportation flight left the U.S. Dec. 7 bound for Somalia, one of several Muslim-majority countries named in the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban. But for mysterious reasons, the plane needed to turn around in Senegal. The passengers said they had to wait almost a full day on the tarmac without adequate access to food, water, or the bathroom, as VICE News reported last week. Shackled to their chairs, some of the detainees urinated in bottles or on themselves, they said.
The detainees, now being held in detention facilities in Florida, could be put on another deportation flight as soon as Wednesday, according to court documents.
The U.S. deported 521 Somalis between last October and the end of September, up from 198 for the previous period, according to federal data. Since Donald Trump took office, ICE has taken a more aggressive approach to pursuing deportation orders that were previously low priorities. The suit paints a picture of just what kind of people ICE has targeted — and the risks they face.
Just days before the first deportation flight took off, for example, officials concluded that al-Shabaab had killed over 500 people in the worst terror attack in Somalia’s history.
“Everyone knows they are coming,” said Rebecca Sharpless, director of the University of Miami law school’s Immigration Clinic and one of the lawyers representing the deportees. “It is not safe for these men and women to return, especially in light of the escalation of terrorist violence in Somalia in the last weeks.”
Fearing for their safety upon returning to Somalia, many of the plaintiffs had previously tried to seek asylum and been rejected. Others couldn’t even access an attorney to help them.
One man on the flight, Ismail Jimcale Abdullah, fled Somalia in 2015. Al-Shabaab killed his father-in-law and threatened his family. He's worried that if he returns now, he'll be next, according to a statement provided in the complaint filed Monday.
“I am not a criminal,” his statement reads. “All I wanted to do was seek asylum in the United States.”
Cover image: A shackled illegal immigrant from El Salvador walks to an MD-80 aircraft for a repatriation flight with 79 other illegal immigrants back to El Salvador, Tuesday, June 26, 2012 from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)