No exit: Keyse Jama waits to be deported

On July 16th Keyse Jama was finally released from prison. The 26-year-old Somali immigrant walked out of the Washington County jail in Stillwater after nearly five years of detention and court battles.


Since then Jama has been a free man. According to his attorney, Jeff Keyes, he is living in Minneapolis and working various temp jobs to pay the bills. "Right now he's a taxpaying contributor to society," says Keyes. "He's doing very well."

In 1999 Jama pleaded guilty to a felony assault charge stemming from a fight outside a St. Cloud apartment complex. He served one year in prison. But rather than release Jama when his sentence expired, U.S. immigration officials began deportation proceedings against him.

Jama fought his removal on the grounds that Somalia had no functioning government and that he would be subject to violent persecution if returned to his homeland. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with that body ultimately ruling that it was legal to deport Jama to Somalia.

In April, U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement finally attempted to repatriate Jama. But the effort turned into a debacle, with officials in Somalia refusing to accept him. Jama eventually was returned to the Washington County jail. Finally in July--some five years after his criminal sentence expired--U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim ordered him released.

But the threat of deportation continues to hang over Jama. At any moment immigration officials could decide to make another attempt at sending him back to Somalia. "Nothing has changed as far as the government's position," notes Keyes. According to published reports there are more than 4,000 other Somalis facing a similar situation either because of immigration law violations or criminal convictions.

The conditions in Jama's homeland remain chaotic. Late last year a new government was installed, the fourteenth such effort since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was removed from office in 1991 and the country plunged into a brutal civil war.

The capital of Mogadishu remains plagued by sporadic clan warfare, and there have been a series of pirate attacks off the country's coast. Last month there was an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi and many factions within the country don't consider the government legitimate.

Despite the continuing strife, this latest effort at forming a functional Somali government is deemed the most credible effort so far. For this reason, Keyes hopes that U.S. immigration officials will hold off deporting Jama and other detainees. "They're at a point now where it would be kind of an insult to that new government to just start dropping people without negotiating a repatriation agreement," he says.

Then again, the U.S. government doesn't seem too concerned about offending foreign governments these days.


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