MOGADISHU, Somalia—Ahmed Salah Hassan walked across Africa and Latin America to get to the United States. He traversed nearly 20 national borders, hiked the Darién Gap—a 60-mile patch of untamable jungle and swamp—and braved the checks at the U.S. southern border.
But Hassan, looking for freedom and safety, never found it in the United States. When he finally, legally, crossed into Brownsville, Texas, in the spring of 2015, he was detained immediately. That set off a two-year odyssey through immigration detention centers—first at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Louisiana, then at Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, before he was deported back to Somalia, the country he’d fled nearly a decade earlier.
Hassan’s story started well before Donald Trump claimed that Somali-born U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and other women of color in Congress should “go back” to the countries they came from. But that is what Hassan was forced to do.
His time in America ended in late January 2017, less than a week after Trump’s inauguration, when he was put on a chartered flight full of deportees to Somalia. And in March of this year, Hassan died in a restaurant bombing in the Somali capital Mogadishu, killed in the sort of violence from which he’d fled in the first place.
The Daily Beast obtained Hassan’s temporary travel document issued by the Embassy of Somalia in Washington, D.C. It says he was 29 years old when he was deported. Hassan’s death certificate, issued by the Somali Sudanese Specialized Hospital, says he was 30 when he was killed. It also says he died on his way to the hospital. He was married to a woman named Kaafiya Ibrahim Mohamed. His daughter, Amran Ahmed Saalah, is 6 years old.
Friends and family said Hassan believed there could be no life for him in Somalia, and he was right. But he was wrong about another country: There could be no life for him in the United States, either. “My country is burning, he would say,” recalls a friend and co-worker who knew Hassan in South Africa, before he decided to keep moving to the States.
The policies that left Hassan imprisoned for two years, denied asylum and detained under the Obama administration, and finally deported, have accelerated at lightning speed since Trump took office. Today, more people are being held and then returned to deadly environments from which they fled than ever before, and the administration is making moves to deny asylum claims almost entirely.
“I think there are numerous variables that contribute to an individual being unable to prevail with an asylum claim,” says Priscilla Olivarez, a managing attorney for immigration legal service provider American Gateways. “However, we have seen changes in policy and practice under the current administration that have made it significantly more difficult for asylum seekers (including Somalis) to win their asylum claim.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Hassan’s wife, Kaafiya Ibrahim Mohamed, said she thought that sending someone back to Somalia was like sentencing them to death.
There is little doubt, certainly, that Somalia is a dangerous place to live.
On Thursday the mayor of Mogadishu died from wounds received when a suicide bomber walked into his compound on July 24 in the midst of a high-level meeting, detonating bombs that killed 11 people in all. Two days before that, a car bomb killed at least 17 people at a busy checkpoint in the city. Ten days before that, 26 people were killed, and approximately 50 injured, in the southern port city of Kismayo after a complex attack on a popular hotel. Al Shabaab, the Islamist group that has pledged allegiance to al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for all of these attacks.
Five days after Trump was inaugurated, he issued mandates related to immigration. One called “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements” would have the most impact on people like Hassan because it almost entirely ended the opportunity for migrants to leave detention after they arrived in the U.S. Experts and activists say this change sentenced most asylum seekers to deportation before they even went before a judge.
“Asylum seekers who are denied parole and remain in detention have a much harder time finding attorneys, which asylum seekers are not guaranteed or given for free, but are crucial to winning an asylum case,” Yael Schacher, a senior advocate at Refugees International, told The Daily Beast.
Before the order, migrants and asylum seekers who came to the border as "arriving aliens" would always be locked up, but would be eligible for a parole hearing that would allow them to be released (sometimes on bond) as their case proceeded. The new order said, "The Secretary shall immediately take all appropriate action to ensure that the parole and asylum provisions of Federal immigration law are not illegally exploited to prevent the removal of otherwise removable aliens.”
What that meant in practice was revealed in a memo from then-Chief of Staff John Kelly issued to the Department of Homeland Security less than a month later. “The President has determined,” he said, that “the lawful detention of aliens” deemed unfit for parole was the most sensible way to “enforce immigration laws at our borders.” Essentially, anyone who was not paroled would be detained for the duration of the court proceedings. Parole, the memo said, should be used "sparingly.”
With these new rules, those seeking freedom via parole would need to make much stronger cases for release, furthering their chances of staying locked up even if they met parole criteria, researchers and activists contend.
Since Kelly’s mandate was issued the number of people detained by ICE continues to break records. In March, The Daily Beast reported over 50,000 people were detained, an apparent all-time high. The number hasn’t gone down; as of today ICE has the current population at 52,100.
ICE presents reasons for denying parole as a checklist. According to documents shared with The Daily Beast, Hassan was denied parole because, as per the checklist, any documentation he submitted to prove his identity was deemed insufficient and he couldn’t prove that he was not a flight risk.
On May 30, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU filed a joint suit against the Trump administration claiming it is “categorically denying release” to detained immigrants.
After a short detention in Texas, Hassan was held in La Salle Detention Center in the middle of Louisiana, then after his asylum claim was denied he was moved to Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden in northeast Alabama, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He was in each facility for about 300 days, according to ICE.
Hassan’s wife, Kaafiya Ibrahim Mohamed, said they spoke “many times” while he was in detention in the States and she in Somalia. Asked if he seemed stressed, she said, “He didn’t want to share his emotions with me, he was hiding [them].”
In Gadsden, Alabama, Hassan ran into his friend Qeys Bare, a fellow Somali. Hassan and Qeys had worked together in the same mall in South Africa, before xenophobic violence there motivated them to try their luck in the States. Qeys doesn’t describe Etowah Country as a holding cell, he describes it as a “jail.”
Indeed, Etowah is part-detention center, part-prison, with about 350 beds for people detained by ICE and about 500 for people in jail, says Resha Swanson, the policy and communications coordinator for Adelante Alabama Worker Center, an organization does two to four visits a month to Etowah. Swanson says inmates told her that they sometimes received a half a tomato and a slice of bread for a meal, and that there aren’t enough refrigerators so food often spoils.
“Etowah is where people are sent to be broken and to sign their deportation papers as quickly as possible,” Swanson told The Daily Beast.
As Europe slams its gates to newcomers via new policies to stop people from leaving Libya, record numbers of African refugees, migrants and asylum seekers have been attempting to come to the United States instead. According to Mexican authorities, from January to July in 2016 almost 8,000 people from Africa and Asia presented themselves at Mexican immigration checkpoints, compared to 4,261 in all of 2015 and 1,831 in 2014. A Reuters report last month with data from Mexico’s interior ministry suggests that migration from Africa this year will break records.
Besides the shift making indefinite detention extremely probable, it is now also becoming more likely that once the case is processed, the asylum claim will be denied.
“It has always been very difficult to win an asylum claim,” says Carl Bon Tempo, a professor of history at the State University of New York-Albany and author of Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees During the Cold War. “Asylum is a very hard legal status to achieve.”
To win an asylum case an applicant has to put together extensive documentation, which is often difficult to marshal when fleeing a war zone and usually requires the assistance of an immigration lawyer, who may be expensive and hard to access when one is detained.
“It is especially hard for asylum seekers to find pro bono or low cost attorneys if they are transferred to detention facilities in remote areas,” says Schacher of Refugees International. “These transfers also take them to jurisdictions of immigration judges with low asylum grant rates. Prolonged detention is isolating, traumatic and demoralizing—the food and medical care are poor, there is no education and little recreation, making phone calls is expensive. African asylum seekers have also faced discrimination and worse conditions than others. Under these circumstances, many would ‘choose’ to give up their claims.”
Hassan did not have an immigration lawyer. His case for asylum was denied in Oakdale Immigration Court in Louisiana in August 2016. The presiding judge, Agnelis Reese, has rejected every single asylum claim that has crossed her desk—over 200 hearings in five years. Hassan did not appeal the decision but Hassan’s wife, Kaafiya Ibrahim Mohamed, said he was surprised by the outcome: who would send someone back to Somalia?
We will never know exactly why Hassan did not appeal his decision. Qeys expects that Hassan’s reasons were much the same as his. “I didn’t take the appeal,” he said in a WhatsApp message, “because I was tired in prison. I wanted to be free somewhere.” But Hassan’s wife said he didn’t feel that way. Hassan was upset to leave detention. He would rather have stayed there than come back to Somalia.
Key members of the Trump administration including Stephen Miller and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions have re-ignited a long-standing argument that says many people fleeing their homes are not legitimate victims of persecution, they are economic migrants looking to optimize their situation. Sessions has long said asylum seekers are “gaming” the system.
“The credible fear process was intended to be a lifeline for persons facing serious persecution. But it has become an easy ticket to illegal entry into the United States,” Sessions said in his comments to the Executive Office for Immigration Review in October, 2017, a few months after Hassan was deported.
“This argument has been going on since the 1930s,” Bon Tempo said. “You saw it in opposition to European refugees,” when many Jews were turned away from American shores. “You have people saying they're not victims of Nazi persecution, they're people trying to get out and have a better life.”
As with detentions, asylum denials hit a record high under Trump, with 65 percent denied last year according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).
This increase could be due to a backlog of cases of people that have been sitting in detention that are now getting more quickly processed because quotas have been raised for immigration judges. More than 42,000 asylum cases were decided in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2018, the most since TRAC began compiling this data in 2001.
Denials climbed after former Attorney General Sessions announced women fleeing gang and domestic violence would not be granted asylum.
Like detention and denials, physical deportations back to war zones have peaked under Trump, with Somalis being one of the most targeted groups. There has been a greater than 135 percent increase in the number of Somalis deported under Trump compared to the Obama administration (750 in FY 2017/2018 compared to 318 in FY 2015/2016) according to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security show.
Back in Somalia, Hassan looked for work, but the country’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the world—67 percent for people under 30, according to the United Nations—and he couldn’t find anything. His wife says he especially wanted to work for a travel agency.
Even though the decision to deny Hassan asylum was made under the Obama administration, and Trump was less than a week in office when he was loaded onto a charter plane for deportation, Hassan’s wife said he still blamed Trump. Hassan was convinced he was deported because of this president who campaigned with a promise he would ban virtually all Muslims from entering the United States.
Hassan’s wife saw him for the last time at 8:00 on the morning of Thursday, March 28. They talked three times that day, she recalled. Their house was undergoing some renovations, so they’d gone back and forth about that over the course of the day. Then Hassan’s cousin called her around evening prayers to say he’d been in the attack, and she rushed to the hospital. He’d already died in the ambulance. He had wounds from shrapnel in his side and in his head, she recalled.
Kaafiya Ibrahim Mohamed, now a widow, has heard about Trump telling Ihhan Omar to go back to Somalia, and she said that his willingness to level such language at a sitting official shows how much he hates refugees, Muslims and black people in general.
Still, she told us if she could say anything directly to Trump, she would tell him, “We are helpless, me and my daughter.” She would want Trump to give them a new life in the United States.
“I don’t think he will hear me,” she said.