The debate over immigration policy and migrants showing up at the southern border can feel far away, but these stories are also playing out much closer to home in New Hampshire. On Monday, a 28-year old Somali man was released from the Strafford County Jail in Dover after more than two-and-a-half years in detention.
Mohamed Ahmed-Cali’s story begins in the city of Merca, in southern Somalia, in 2014. Armed militants had already killed his father. The terrorist group Al-Shabab was threatening his mother.
“They tell her don’t work again. If you work, we gonna kill you,” Ahmed-Cali explains. Less than eight hours out of jail, he tells his story while wearing a white dress shirt that’s at least two sizes too big, borrowed from his lawyers. His worldly possessions are in a small mesh laundry bag on the floor, a plastic cup and some tea bags spill out.
Ahmed-Cali has been constantly on the move, he explains, during the past five years.
First, his family fled to a refugee camp in Kenya. But he wanted to come to the United States, so he started on a months-long journey.
“From Kenya to Turkey. Turkey to Colombia,” he says.
In South America, he hooked up with a group of about 25 other African and Haitian migrants. They had different backgrounds, different reasons for leaving than the current flood of South American migrants, but the path they took was similar.
“From Colombia to Panama, people walking five days, six days, mountain, jungle, without nothing,” he says through a thick Somali accent.
Once they got to Panama, they traveled mostly by bus through Central America. On October 10, 2016, Ahmed-Cali arrived at the southern border near San Diego. He turned himself in, seeking asylum. He said he feared for his life in Somalia.
Immigration authorities transferred Ahmed-Cali to Boston. After a few months there, a judge denied his asylum request. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, transferred him to Louisiana to await deportation. But it kept getting delayed. He kept getting shuttled back and forth between holding facilities in Louisiana and Alabama.
During this period, Ahmed-Cali alleges that he saw and suffered repeated verbal abuse. Sometimes, he says, the guards punished him with blasted air conditioning.
“Cold, cold air. A lot of cold air. No blanket, no nothing.”
Then one day, at 5 o’clock in the morning, it was time for his deportation: 92 Somalis are loaded aboard a chartered plane.
“Two women and 90 men,” he remembers.
It was a nine-hour flight to the first stop, Senegal in western Africa, what was supposed to be a brief layover. But the plane just sat there. Hours go by. The detainees are stuck in their seats. Their wrists and feet are shackled.
“And you sit like this, you cannot move,” he shows, his arms pressed to his side.
Ahmed-Cali says they were on that runway for 23 hours. The detainees were urinating in plastic bottles after the bathrooms overflowed. The whole time, he says there was no explanation for what was happening.
“It was horrible. It was a bad situation, for real.”
The botched deportation flight made international headlines, and was later the subject of a lawsuit. In a statement, ICE says that the delay was caused by a lack of available flight crew. Whatever the reason, the plane turned around, and took off for Miami.
“They said we are going back to U.S.A., we cannot continue our trip…it was like everybody, shock, you know. It was like shock.”
He was still in custody, but the news reports led to a wave of support from immigration attorneys. He soon had a lawyer who helped reopen his asylum case.
But that didn’t stop his frequent transfers within the web of American detention facilities. From Miami he was sent to Georgia, then Louisiana again, Alabama again. Louisiana a fourth time, and finally, last month, to Dover, New Hampshire.
“They go from detention facility to detention facility, and it is just how difficult that makes it to actually invoke your rights as a detainee to try to stay in the United States,” says Gilles Bissonnette, a lawyer with the ACLU of New Hampshire.
Once he was in Dover, the ACLU of New Hampshire filed a challenge to Ahmed-Cali’s detention. It argued that he doesn’t have a criminal record, isn’t a flight risk, and should be released pending a new asylum hearing. The government didn’t challenge the suit.
ICE officials didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.
And so on Monday, SangYeob Kim, another lawyer with the ACLU, went to pick him up at the jail.
“I told him, first, welcome to the United States because it was the first day he was actually out from government custody. Then, second thing I really wanted, not as a lawyer, as a human being, I really wanted him to talk to his mother,” says Kim.
“Are you still alive,” Ahmed-Cali’s mother asks?
“I’m good,” he responds. “She was like so happy, she told me.”
Ahmed-Cali’s family is still in a Kenyan refugee camp. He’s staying in the greater New Hampshire area for now. It isn’t clear when, but at some point, he’ll have another asylum hearing, this time with a full legal team behind him.
“So excited. So grateful, really.”
Bissonnette with the ACLU says Ahmed-Cali’s two-and-a-half-year long case is an outlier, an egregious example of a detainee's due process rights being denied.
But he says the case is still representative of something larger.
“All of the stories that we are reading nationally about immigration and immigration enforcement, they are happening right here under our noses, in the state of New Hampshire. We have a detention facility, and in that detention facility are scores of individuals who are having their rights impacted by policies going on in Washington, D.C.”
As the interview ends, Ahmed-Cali, his dress shirt hanging off his thin shoulders, stands up. He and Bissonnette are going to the cell phone store, so he can get his own phone to keep in touch with his mom.