PORTLAND, Maine — Abdi Ali doesn’t have memories of the country to which the United States government intends to deport him.
Ali and his family fled war in Somalia in 1996, when he was 7 years old. They came to the U.S. legally as refugees, and Ali became a permanent resident a year later, according to interviews and Immigration and Customs Enforcement documents.
In his first interview since ICE agents arrested the 28-year-old inside a Portland courthouse last week, Ali said he is terrified of being sent back to Somalia and does not understand why, after decades in the U.S., he is being deported on a 4-year-old drug possession conviction for which he has already served jail time.
“I’ve been here my whole life, and they [are] kicking me out for this one charge,” Ali said, wiping tears on his orange jumpsuit at the Cumberland County Jail on Monday. “If I go back to my country, they’re going to pretty much kill me. I don’t know [anything] about my country. I’m American. I consider myself American.”
Ali’s arrest appears to be the first time ICE has entered a Maine court to arrest someone. It has struck deep anxiety into the state’s immigrant community and comes as a sign that the Trump administration’s more aggressive immigration enforcement will target people here, including those with legal status in the U.S.
“The new thing that is really, really disturbing here is them seeking him out in the court,” Susan Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, said. “This shines a light on the injustice in our immigration laws.”
Roche said immigration officials trying to deport people based on old convictions is not new, but seeking immigrants out in court to do so is. The new, more aggressive enforcement approach evident in Ali’s case is also affecting his fiancee and her three children, whom he lives with in Westbrook, she said.
“It’s at a different level now than it was before, but we’ve seen so many cases where a family is torn apart by something someone did in the past,” Roche said.
Last Thursday, three ICE agents arrested Ali while he was at the Cumberland County Courthouse to plead not guilty to a drunken driving charge. They walked him out of the court in handcuffs, and a spokesman for the agency later pointed to Ali’s history of misdemeanor convictions, including two for assault in 2010.
But the documents ICE agents gave Ali when he was arrested, explaining why the agency is seeking to deport him, cite only a 2013 cocaine conviction. Ali pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor and served five months in jail. At the time, Ali said, there was no talk of deporting him for the crime, and he doesn’t understand why the federal government is coming after him years later.
“Why me? I’m not even a felon,” Ali cried. “They’re treating me like I’m a big criminal or something”
When asked why ICE is seeking to deport the Ali for a 4-year-old misdemeanor, spokesman Khaalid Walls said that under Trump’s executive order on “ Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” the agency “will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
“All of those in violation of immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention, and if found removable by final order, removal from the United States,” Walls said.
Ali is only one of many Somalis who will be sent back to Africa this year, according to Stephen Schwartz, the U.S. ambassador to Somalia.
“We’ve actually repatriated 168 Somalis this year, and we’re going to repatriate hundreds more,” Schwartz said during a visit to Portland last Monday. “I would like migration to be done through legal means.”
In recent weeks, the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab has waged an increasingly deadly bombing campaign across Somalia, and famine and drought put more than a quarter of the country’s population at risk of starvation, according to the United Nations.
To Ali and his fiancee Melissa Hair, it seems deeply unfair that after coming to the U.S. legally and serving time for his crimes, the government is seeking to deport him.
“It’s like he’s being punished twice,” Hair said.
The couple, who have been together for nine years, were open about Ali’s troubled past.
Like many other Somalis who immigrated to Maine, Ali grew up in Portland’s Riverton neighborhood. He attended Lincoln Middle School and graduated from Deering High School in 2008, where Hair said he was a talented basketball player.
But after fleeing war in Somalia, Ali’s family had a difficult home life and he ran away around the age of 17, he said. Ali isn’t sure where his mother and siblings are today.
“I was on my own for a little bit,” Ali said.
After running away, Ali fell into crime and drug use. Between 2009 and 2014, he was convicted on a slew of misdemeanors, many of them petty crimes. According to a criminal background check, he was twice charged with felonies — for robbery and drug trafficking — but the charges were dismissed when he pleaded guilty to lesser crimes.
Ali eventually found a new family in Hair and her three children. In the past few years, he has straightened out his life, they said. He’s been working at a seafood processing plant and bringing home an income to help support the family. Ali and her children are close, Hair said, and she hasn’t figured out how to tell them he might be forced to leave the country.
An employee at the temp agency that helped Ali get the job described him as punctual and hardworking. Ali said he was getting ready to file his taxes before being arrested last week.
“Why are they doing this right now to me when they didn’t do it back then?” he said.
ICE going into the court to arrest Ali has other immigrants on edge, according to Mahmoud Hassan, president of the Somali Community Center of Maine. Courthouse arrests have drawn heavy criticism in states where they are more common. On Monday 179 Maine lawyers and Maine’s attorney general signed letters opposing the practice.
“People go to the court to address wrongs and seek justice,” Hassan said. “For ICE authorities to be staking out the court erodes their trust and the sanctity of that building.”
Ali said he is working with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project to find a lawyer to represent him during the removal proceedings in immigration court. He and Hair hope there will be a way to fight the government but are worried their family and hopes for the future may be broken apart.
Before Ali was arrested, the couple had been hatching a plan to open a business. It would be called “Fresh Gear,” and they would sell affordable boys clothing to poor teens around Maine. The idea was partially inspired by Ali’s childhood, Hair said.
“I don’t know about that now,” Ali said. “I don’t know where they’re sending me now.”
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