Abdikadir Mohamed landed at JFK International Airport on Dec. 13, 2017, where he planned to board another flight to join his wife and child in Columbus, Ohio.
He never made it there.
Mohamed was admitted into the U.S., but as he was walking to get his luggage when he was stopped by a border patrol officer who asked him, “Are you from Mogadishu?” The Somali native replied yes.
For the next 15 hours, Mohamed was questioned by officers while his requests for a translator were denied. Eighteen months later, he remains locked up at the Elizabeth Detention Center, fighting to remain in the United States and recovering from a serious illness in what supporters say was a case of medical neglect.
On Tuesday, Mohamed, 32, will return to immigration court at the detention center to plead his case, while his supporters rally outside. How did a new immigrant with a spouse visa end up imprisoned and separated from his wife, a U.S. citizen, and his two daughters — one who was born while he was in jail?
Misunderstandings by officers, the lack of a translator and a generally tense environment after President Trump’s “travel ban” were factors leading to Mohamed’s detention, said his attorney Talia Peleg, a professor at CUNY School of Law’s Immigrant and Noncitizen Rights’ Clinic. The case also raises question about the authority and expertise of the Tactical Terrorism Response Team, a division of Customs and Border Patrol, which stopped him, she said.
“He missed the birth of his first child while waiting for his visa to come through in South Africa,” said Peleg, “While detained, he missed the birth of his second child. It’s been such a nightmare for wife and children, and we really hope judge will grant the case and release him.”
His wife, Malyuun Mahamed, 25, a U.S. citizen who lives in Columbus, Ohio, said she dreams of having her husband home this Father’s Day with her daughters, now 1 and 2 years old.
Mohamed married Malyuun, also a Somali native, in June 2016 in South Africa, where he had lived since 2010. After filing paperwork and doing an interview at the U.S. consulate, he was granted his visa on Nov. 29, 2017.
At JFK Airport, Mohamed had his travel documents stamped for admission and was told he was free to go. But he was stopped while on his way to his flight to Ohio, where his wife was waiting for him at the airport.
The officer asked, “Are you from Mogadishu?” referring to the capital of Somalia.
About a week before he arrived in the United States, the Supreme Court upheld a ban on travel from six Muslim-majority countries including Somalia. It should not have impacted Mohamed because he already had secured a green-card visa.
“I don’t think it was a coincidence he was asked if he was Somali in the airport, less than a week after the Supreme Court allowed the ban to go into effect,” Peleg said.
During their search and questioning, officers found two email messages on Mohamed’s phone that became a source of conflict. One was sent to him and one was the text of a press release. Both mentioned the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a group that had fought for autonomy in Eastern Ethiopia.
An officer questioned him about the emails, and he repeatedly tried to explain he had nothing to do with the group and had never been to Ethiopia, Peleg said.
Mohamed told the officer he was part of the Ogaden clan, an ethnic group that spans multiple countries, but the officer seemed to lack an understanding of the complexities of the region, she said. The situation was further complicated by the lack of translator, as Mohamed spoke limited English, she said.
Beyond that, the email and press release were clearly opposed to the separatist group and in support of the Ethiopian government, and an expert testified to that in court, Peleg said. The group, which was not on a U.S. terror list, reached a peace deal with the Ethiopian government last year.
The Department of Homeland Security argued in court that Mohamed committed fraud because he didn’t tell the consulate in South Africathat he was linked to this group, Peleg said. But it was not true, nor was he asked about it, said Peleg, whose co-counsel is the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility project at CUNY.
The Department of Homeland Security and its Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comment about the case or the role of the Tactical Terrorism Response Team.
“We need a lot more information about TTRT and their mandate,” Peleg said, referring to the team that detained Mohamed. “It raises questions that should be of grave concern to both citizens and non-citizens like.”
The case, she said, also calls into question the “knowledge and expertise these agents may have about complicated world political dynamics.”
At a House committee hearingin May 2017 titled “Preventing Terrorists from Acquiring U.S. Visas,”Homeland Security officials said all travelers were subject to scrutiny, even if they have been issued a visa or other travel authorization. They explained that the team is trained in counterterrorism response and uses information “derived from targeting and inspection to mitigate possible threats,” officials said.
During an eight-month period in fiscal year 2017, nearly 600 people who had been granted visas or other travel documents were refused admission to the U.S. as a result of the team’s efforts.
Allegations of medical neglect
Over an eight-month period, Mohamed complained of chest pain to the medical staff at the Elizabeth Detention Center, but was only given pain medication and antacids.
In November, he was hospitalized because of pain so severe he was unable to get out of bed, eat or use the bathroom. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and hospitalized for 10 days, when he had his lungs drained several times.
He now takes medications for tuberculosis, continues to have chest pain and suffers from permanent scarring in his lung, supporters wrote on an online petition calling for him to be freed.
CoreCivic, the company that operates the Elizabeth Detention Center, said it has a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Health Service Corps to provide medical and mental health services.
“CoreCivic staff at Elizabeth do not make medical or mental health treatment determinations and are trained to refer all detainee health or medical concerns, whether routine or acute, to facility medical staff for evaluation, triage and treatment,” the company said in a statement. “Detainees have daily access to sign up for medical attention.”
ICE’s Newark field office responded in a statement that it does not comment on detainee medical issues due to privacy regulations.
“ICE facilities adhere to the National Detention Standards to ensure that detainees have access to appropriate and necessary medical, dental and mental health care, including emergency services,” the agency said.
Complaints of medical neglect and unsanitary conditions have dogged immigration detention centers in New Jersey, including the one in Elizabeth. Problems at the facility were highlighted in a report last year by the group Human Rights First.
Members of immigrant advocacy groups from New Jersey and New York plan to rally outside the detention center on Tuesday. They’ll include Basma Eid, program coordinator at Freedom to Thrive, which organizes around prison divestment and ending the punitive criminal immigration system.
“We’re showing up for folks who are inside, remembering those who are impacted and those who bear the brunt of this,” she said.
The group has a petition in support of Mohamed and has collected funds for his wife, a warehouse worker raising two children on her own. Malyuun also sends money to Mohamed’s family in Somaliasince he was their breadwinner, sending earnings from South Africa.
Malyunn has visited the detention center six or seven times since her husband has been jailed and she’s brought her daughters on a few of those trips. The little one started walking and talking and says “daddy, daddy.”
She said she dreams of a life with her husband at home with her and their children.
“Give me a chance for my husband and his family,” she said. “I want my husband to be released. I want my husband to have his freedom back.”