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Lawsuit: ICE wrongly held Minnesota man 11 months, 'messed [him] up'

Ali Abdalla's lawsuit against the federal government says Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) wrongly imprisoned a U.S. citizen.

Ali Abdalla's lawsuit against the federal government says Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) wrongly imprisoned a U.S. citizen. Associated Press

Ali Abdalla of Coon Rapids came to the United States as a boy refugee from Somalia. In 2003, his father became a naturalized citizen, and as his son, Abdalla was granted the same status.

Nonetheless, in the summer of 2017, he was arrested by an agent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (better known as ICE), handcuffed, and hauled off to the Freeborn County Jail. According to a civil complaint filed in the United States District Court of Minnesota last week, Abdalla told his handlers and guards again and again that he was actually a citizen. Nonetheless, they told him he was being deported back to Somalia.

The crux of the issue was gallingly simple. Like thousands of refugees, Abdalla says he didn’t have access to consistent government records, and so was assigned an arbitrary birthdate: January 1. If that were really the case, he would have been 18 in 2003, when his father obtained citizenship, and therefore not entitled to the same privilege. But his family said his actual birthdate was months later, in December, making him a minor at the time.

Because of this seemingly petty dispute, for nearly a year, Abdalla would be passed around from jail to jail, denied prescription anxiety meds, and taunted by his fellow prisoners, according to a lawsuit he filed in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week.

Abdalla got an immigration attorney and tried desperately to free himself, and it looked as though he had succeeded at the beginning of 2018. Twin Cities Immigration Judge Ryan Wood found favor with Abdalla’s argument and put the kibosh on his deportation.

ICE insisted on holding Abdalla while the agency appealed. In the end, it took a writ of habeas corpus – essentially, a legal demand for a reason for his imprisonment – to finally free him, five months after Wood’s ruling and 11 months after his arrest.

It’s not the kind of thing people tend to bounce right back from.

“By Mr. Abdalla’s own admission, being detained even after he was declared a United States citizen ‘messed me up,’” reads a line in his civil complaint.

Abdalla's suit against the federal government is seeking damages for being deprived of his liberty and adequate treatment for his mental health. He also wants it known that ICE broke its own rules by arresting him and keeping him so long. In a recent statement from Abdalla and the ACLU, he said he was “shocked” his government would do this.

“I felt like I was nobody,” he said. “They took me away from my family, everything I know. I might not see my kids ever again, my mom, my dad. It was horrible.”

His attorney, Ian Bratlie, thinks it’s pretty clear ICE was acting under the influence of racial or religious bias, and he’s worried this kind of thing could just as easily happen to someone else if it isn’t called out.

“I think the big thing is that Mr. Abdalla is a U.S. citizen, and they did this knowing he was a citizen,” he says.

The feds get 60 days to respond to Adballa's complaint. Bratlie says as of right now, Abdalla is doing well, and even feeling optimistic.

“He sent some nice texts saying ‘God bless you for doing this,’” he says.