The men were among 30 Somalis arrested in the interior of the U.S. and ordered deported by immigration judges.
Last month, immigrant rights groups reported that the men were physically and verbally abused at a detention center in Sierra Blanca, near El Paso. In phone interviews and conference calls with reporters, several of the men described beatings and indiscriminate use of pepper spray at the West Texas Detention Center, which is operated by LaSalle Corrections under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The men were interviewed by officials from ICE’s Office of Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility, said Fatma Marouf, a law professor and director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Texas A&M University. But by deporting the men, ICE may have hamstrung its own internal investigation as well as any criminal investigation that might have been conducted by the Justice Department, Marouf said.
“I think it’s really disappointing that they were removed,” she said. “They did interview everybody at least once that I understand, so at least we have that evidence. But in terms of testimony in a trial, all the witnesses are gone, so it does limit what kind of testimony we can get and what kind of charges can be brought.”
LaSalle has not responded to requests for comment. ICE officials wouldn’t address allegations that the deportations affected their investigation into treatment of detainees at the West Texas Detention Center. An agency spokeswoman said Monday that ICE “field office personnel conduct records checks prior to removal to ensure that aliens are free from any legal impediment to removal. Accordingly, the aliens aboard the March 29 flight were all subject to administratively final orders of removal.”
One of the men deported said by phone that immigrants held in a processing center in El Paso were loaded onto a plane Thursday and released in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu on Friday. He doesn’t speak the Somali language or know anyone in the country, said the man, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Abdollahih, because he’s afraid of being targeted by Islamic militants.
The Somali government is currently facing an insurgency by the al-Shabab militant group.
“There are spies that work with this group, and those people could spy up on you and all of a sudden they’ll make a quick phone call to tell those people on you,” Abdollahih said. “You can’t trust nobody. You keep it hidden. As soon as we went there, we tried to all disperse. There was some of the guys that are basically homeless right now.
“Western people like us, we don’t have no rights. We’re basically like nobodies to them. They’re looking at us like we’re people who are not even human,” he added. “They say they can’t trust us because they think we’re spies from the United States, and the government thinks we came over here to join al-Shabab. Basically we’re stuck in the middle of no man’s land.”
Like many of the men who were deported, Abdollahih said he came to the U.S. as a refugee in the 1990s, but he lost his legal status after a drug conviction.
His wife, Angela, who also asked that her last name not be used because she fears for her husband’s safety, said she’s left with their two children. Her husband spent months being shuffled from detention center to detention center, Angela said, and wasn’t able to see their children until his arrival in Somalia and contacted them via a video messaging app.
She’s afraid to tell the children what happened to their father, she said, because she doesn’t know if the family will ever be reunited.
“It’s just like a whole different world,” Angela said. “He doesn’t have any money there … because he has to get identification. We don’t know what to do. We feel like there’s nothing else we can do.”
She and the wives of other men held in the Sierra Blanca detention center said they tried to contact authorities and alert them to what was happening in the detention center and were ignored. Angela said she thought that after they went public with their allegations, something would change. Instead, a week after the men spoke with reporters they were deported.
“I felt like as soon as this stuff started getting circulated, they just wanted to silence all of us and throw it under the carpet,” she said. “It’s weird and it’s sad and I feel like it was done purposefully.”