Attorneys for 92 Somali nationals who were held in "slave ship conditions" for nearly 48 hours during a deportation flight, say that the group's harrowing experience is indicative of immigration officials' procedures under the Trump administration.
The passengers were denied food, water, and access to a bathroom, according to a class-action lawsuit, filed by the Somalis with the help of four immigrant rights groups including Americans for Immigrant Justice and the Immigration Clinic at the University of Miami.
Their hands and feet were shackled during the first leg of the trip to Dakar, Senegal on December 7, and while the plane sat on a tarmac there for 23 hours before Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decided to reroute the flight back to the U.S. due to "logistical concerns."
"When the plane’s toilets overfilled with human waste, some of the detainees were left to urinate into bottles or on themselves," according to the lawsuit. "ICE agents wrapped some who protested, or just stood up to ask a question, in full-body restraints. ICE agents kicked, struck, or dragged detainees down the aisle of the plane, and subjected some to verbal abuse and threats."
"I think it's reflective of the Trump Administration's overall crackdown on immigration as well as reflective of their attitude towards Somalia and towards Muslims," said Kim Hunter, who represents two of the plaintiffs in the case, in an interview with the Guardian.
In addition to drawing attention to the "inhumane conditions and egregious abuse" the lawsuit alleges, immigrant rights advocates are urging the government to reopen the passengers' deportation cases.
The U.S. has generally avoided removing people to Somalia in recent decades in light of security concerns there. Al-Shabaab, an armed group with ties to Al Qaeda, is active in the country and killed more than 500 people in a truck bombing in October. Many of the deportees, who escaped as refugees fleeing civil war, fear they could be targeted by the group if returned to Somalia.
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One plaintiff, named in the lawsuit as Musa, "believes news of this aborted flight has reached the general Somali public. He believes that having been on the December 7 flight jeopardizes his safety upon his return, and he believes that al-Shabaab will kill him for being a Westernized Somali."
Some of the passengers were brought to the U.S. as children, and at least one was detained after a routine check-in with immigration officials.
"This is now a disturbing pattern where ICE is targeting people who have been living in the community for many years on these orders of supervision and with work permits and suddenly they are snatched from their families and communities," said Rebecca Sharpless, another attorney representing the passengers. "It is not safe for these men and women to return, especially in light of the escalation of terrorist violence in Somalia in the last weeks."
While the Trump administration has insisted it's focusing its deportations on those with criminal backgrounds, lawyers representing the Somalis say about one-third of the passengers had no criminal record while others had been convicted only of petty crimes like shoplifting.
"I'm not terribly convinced we're deporting the worst of worst," Hunter told the Guardian.
The passengers are currently being held in a detention center outside Miami, while their lawyers work to halt another attempt to deport them.