'We didn't think America would be like this': Why Somalis facing deportation are turning to Canada

Last January Abdirahman was told to board a plane chartered by U.S. Immigration — his asylum claim had failed and he was being deported back to Somalia. He had been trying to get to Minneapolis where the largest population of Somali immigrants in the U.S. live. And with more deportations looming, many there are getting worried.
Abdirahman's journey back to Somalia: "They said that your airplane is ready to leave and they locked my legs, arms and stomach." (John Moore/Getty Images) 2:06

By Craig Desson

Out of my phone comes the crackling sounds of Abdirahman's voice, speaking to a translator and me from Mogadishu. 

Abdirahman was deported from the United States in January for a failed asylum claim on an airplane chartered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

He says there were 90 other Somalis on the deportation flight.

"They said that your airplane is ready to leave and they locked my legs, arms and stomach."

Abdirahman doesn't feel safe back in Mogadishu. He says a car bomb exploded the day he arrived and people are accusing him of working for the CIA.

"I left the trouble and now I'm back in the same trouble I left ten years ago," he says.

An unauthorized person shackled on an ICE deportation flight in 2015. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Abdirahman is part of a growing group of people being deported and detained for reasons related to their immigration status.  

ICE says they plan to deport almost 5,000 people from the U.S. to Somalia, a plan which was launched under the Obama administration.

They also announced in May that arrests were up 37.6 per cent over the same period the previous year of people "either known or suspected of being in the country illegally." ICE says nearly 75 per cent of those arrested are convicted criminals.

Graph depicting rise in immigration enforcement from ICE during “the 100 days since President Donald J. Trump signed Executive Orders regarding immigration enforcement priorities.” (ICE)

The effects of this shift in U.S. immigration policy is being felt in cities with large immigrant communities — like Minneapolis, which has over 25,000 Somalis in and around the city.  

In the documentary "We didn't think America would be like this," I go to Minneapolis to hear the voices of people who are afraid of being deported themselves, or know somebody who is.  

I speak to Murdina, an Ethiopian immigrant who knows somebody who came to the U.S. as a child but failed to get citizenship. They're now thinking of fleeing north to Canada.

She tells me, "I feel like right now we have no place. We didn't think America would be like this."

I also hear from Somali community leaders who are dealing with a constituency who are anxious about immigration detention.

Mohammed Ali, who runs a job training centre for Somali immigrants, says immigration policing has changed.

"During Obama's presidency, people were not targeted unless they had [a] criminal record."

Mohammed says now all kinds of other rules are enforced, leading to detainment or deportation.

He says now, for example, if you are applying for U.S. citizenship and are a day late telling them you've moved, "legally it says you've abandoned your application. You'll get kicked out."

Mohammed knows somebody in that situation who fled to Canada, crossing the border illegally.

I also speak with Amiin Harun, an immigration lawyer in Minneapolis. I ask him what's wrong with deporting non-U.S. citizens who break the law. His answer:

"In law school we're taught there is something called a double jeopardy, where if you are convicted for a crime and punished for that crime, you shouldn't be punished again. Let's say I violated some law and I'm arrested and I served my time. ICE would [still] be waiting for me at the door.

To me, that's a double jeopardy. I could lose my status and be deported from this country, plus I could be in jail for a number of months or years before I'm deported. So that's obviously a very severe consequence for some very minor infractions."  

The Riverside Plaza apartment, known as the center of the Somali community in Minneapolis. (Craig Desson)

The people who work at ICE see it differently. In the same press release from May, ICE director Thomas Homan explains the rise in detentions like this:

"ICE agents and officers have been given clear direction to focus on threats to public safety... which has resulted in a substantial increase in the arrest of convicted criminal aliens. However, when we encounter others who are in the country unlawfully, we will execute our sworn duty and enforce the law."

According to Homan, ICE is taking the president's cue. "These statistics reflect President Trump's commitment to enforce our immigration laws fairly and across the board."

But for those impacted by this commitment — like the Somali community in Minneapolis — the American Dream is feeling very far removed from fair.


About the producer

Craig Desson
Craig Desson is a producer at CBC Radio.

He previously worked at the Toronto Star, TVO and Journalists for Human Rights. In the summer he'll be working from Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, an East German public broadcaster as an Arthur F. Burns fellow.

Music for the documentary is composed and performed by Stefan Banjevic


About the Somali translator 

Hodan Nalayeh
Hodan Nalayeh is the host of Integration TV on Omni Television in Toronto.