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Omar Mohamed has been held in federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody for more than two years. Today, he is housed at the Kandiyohi County jail in Willmar, Minnesota. Like other immigration detainees at the jail, he’s worried that conditions there could lead to the spread of COVID-19.

“The conditions right now are very dangerous,” said Omar, who came to the U.S. from Somalia in 1991. “People are all together. Everybody has a cellmate.”

Omar spoke to the Sahan Journal via video phone from a crowded community room at the jail, where others moved about unfettered, some failing to practice social distancing and even grasping hands. He faults both ICE and the county jail for failing to take proper measures to protect detainees, such as providing more space.

After he spoke, Omar promptly passed the phone to Anwar Abdiwahed, another ICE inmate who’s been detained for the past eight months. Anwar said he was worried because the jail keeps bringing in “new people off the street” each day with no apparent regard for inmates’ health. “We don’t know if they’ve got the virus or not,” he said. “They keep downplaying the whole situation.”

Salat Musla, another ICE detainee, spoke next and pleaded for all detainees to be released and sent home under supervision for as long as the pandemic lasts. “Because this thing, we can get it, we can be infected so easily,” he said. “So we want to be released. We want to be with our family.”

In all, five inmates spoke about what they perceived to be inadequate measures taken by both Kandiyohi County and ICE to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the jail. They passed the phone from one person to the next, sometimes with fear in their voices, for the entirety of a half-hour video session last week.

The men join a growing chorus of lawyers, advocates, and inmates lobbying for the release of ICE detainees across the country. They lament crowded and unsanitary conditions that could promote the spread of COVID-19. Several detainees have already tested positive in U.S. facilities, a development that prompted the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to demand the release of non-priority, low-risk inmates. “ICE’s failure to reduce detention numbers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 has a real possibility of creating a severe health crisis for detention centers and overwhelming local health care facilities,” read a statement from the caucus.

In addition, in late March, 62 ICE detainees being held in the Sherburne County Jail in Elk River filed a petition for release. The case has been assigned to a U.S. district judge, but no hearings have yet been scheduled.

An ICE official referred all questions regarding detainees and COVID-19 to a page on the agency’s website explaining measures being taken during the pandemic. Previously, the official told the Sahan Journal that the no detainees in Minnesota considered at high risk of contracting the virus met the legal standard for release.

Officials at MEnD Correctional Care, the company contracted to provide Kandiyohi County Jail inmates with health care services, could not be reached for comment before press time. 

While deferring to ICE on matters related to immigration detainees, Kandiyohi County Jail Administrator Matthew Akerson was willing to speak generally about the precautions the jail is taking to protect inmates and staff and prevent the spread of the virus. 

All new inmates are checked for symptoms and quarantined, though the length of the quarantine is determined on a case-by-case basis. Once they are cleared, new inmates are placed in a unit with other recently-jailed inmates, Akerson said, so they’re not mixed with those who have been serving for longer periods. 

All jail officers and staff are checked daily for COVID-19 symptoms as well, Akerson said. Inmates are given free hygiene items and jail workers are constantly cleaning shared areas. “We’re all trying to do as much as we can,” he said.

He said local police have been making fewer arrests, resulting in fewer-than-average new jail inmates. Some crimes like domestic assault and probation violations compel arrests, Akerson explained. But for other offenses like theft, police can give a ticket and set a court date instead. The county doesn’t have the power to release inmates from lesser charges, but some judges are doing so, he added.

ICE detainees, however, are arrested and held separately from the general population at the Kandiyohi County Jail. They are detained for their immigration statuses and prior criminal offenses, including misdemeanors, even if those charges have been settled. Omar, for example, was convicted in 2006 for possession of the illegal stimulant khat and in 2016 for an insurance fraud scheme, which resulted in a misdemeanor charge and two years of probation.

After coming to the U.S. from Somalia–first to live in Michigan and then, in 2000, to live in Minnesota–Omar developed a musical career and became known locally by the performing name Omar Shooli. He built a fanbase singing playfully romantic songs in Somali; one of his music videos from 2014 has drawn 1.3 million views.

Via video phone, Omar said being deported to Somalia would put his life in danger because his music is decidedly libertine (one of his videos features a naked woman). He has been fighting deportation since ICE arrested him in June 2017. He’s won his case against deportation twice before immigration judges, only to have the federal government appeal each time. 

“It’s a back-and-forth thing,” he said. “I’m exhausted.”

Another inmate in Kandiyohi County Jail, Hutchingson Davies, took the phone to emphasize that many immigration detainees are in jail for petty crimes and that often, the penalties have already been served. Davies, who came to the U.S. eight years ago from Liberia with his mother, who was granted asylum, said previous petty charges brought him to detention. According to Minnesota court records, Davies received three speeding tickets between 2016 and 2017. “Us just sitting here doing dead time, to me it feels like double jeopardy,” he said. 

That’s particularly true for Tesluach Gatkuoth, a detainee originally from Ethiopia. He said he is worried about staying in the jail because of his chronic asthma, which makes him vulnerable to COVID-19. “It’s very scary,” he said, only a portion of his face visible during the video call. “Our lives are at risk.”

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Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...