ICE is holding Somalia detainees from Minnesota in the for-profit Catahoula Correctional Center, in Louisiana Credit: Photo courtesy of Catahoula Correctional Center

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On a recent Tuesday morning, Kadar kept coughing as he spoke to his brother over the phone. 

Kadar is currently being held at a cramped facility called the Catahoula Detention Center, in Harrisonburg, Louisiana. He’s one of about 20 Somalis who were first picked up in Minnesota by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, many over six month ago, before the pandemic hit. They are currently awaiting deportation in Harrisonburg. 

His brother Abdul, who lives in St. Cloud and asked not to give his last name, believes Kadar is most likely sick.

“I think he has COVID,” Abdul said. “He has slept three hours each night. They have not tested him yet.” 

Kadar is one of four detainees on the cusp of being sent to Somalia while displaying COVID-19-like symptoms. If the detainees bring the virus with them, it could have dangerous consequences for a country that doesn’t possess the medical capacity to handle a serious outbreak.

While his brother, who has young children, remains detained in Louisiana, Abdul has had to support both families. 

Abdul said his brother’s reports of the for-profit jail are grim. “He said, ‘We are in a big hole. Nobody’s masked,’” Abdul said. “Not even the security guards have masks.” 

Abdul added that ICE originally picked up Kadar for a petty crime. “He did not kill anybody. He didn’t rob anybody,” he said. Kadar, who came to the U.S. with his brother as a teenager, now awaits deportation. 

Representative Ilhan Omar has sounded the alarm about ICE’s plan for the detainees. “ICE is set to deport dozens of individuals from my district to Somalia, risking the spread of COVID,” she tweeted on September 12. “ICE’s actions will not only put these individuals at risk, but could have far-reaching consequences for Somalia.” 

In a letter to ICE interim director Tony H. Pham dated September 10, Ilhan demanded answers for how ICE would avoid the medical hazards of coronavirus, including ICE’s plans for testing and quarantining the individuals scheduled for deportation. 

“Presently, the Government of Somalia requires anyone entering the county—including those

deported by ICE—to be tested for and test negative for COVID-19,” the letter states. “The health infrastructure in Somalia, where there are only 15 ICU beds for a population of 15 million, means that the arrival of any COVID-19 positive person could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.” 

John Bruning, a staff attorney for the Refugee and Immigrant Program with the Advocates for Human Rights, is working with a number of clients currently detained at Catahoula. (He previously represented Kadar.)

“Three of my clients think they have had COVID,” Bruning said. Another detainee, represented by the Kim Hunter Law firm, in St. Paul, also displays coronavirus symptoms, he said. 

Meanwhile, there’s one confirmed case in the group–a detainee who came from the Northeastern United States. 

‘If no tests are done, there are not positive tests’

The Somali men got tested a week ago at a detention center in Alexandria, Louisiana, before moving to Catahoula. “Supposedly they were tested negative, but most of them haven’t seen their test results,” Bruning said. 

According to Bruning, one Somali detainee, from a Northeastern state, did test positive for COVID-19, and since then, four others have felt sick. 

One of the reasons ICE has refused to test them again? Bruning suspects the Somali government may require negative tests in order to accept the deportees.

“ICE is fudging the numbers,” Bruning said. “They are lying to the Somali government in order to force through a deportation. It falls into this broader pattern with ICE, and from Trump himself. If no tests are done, there are not positive tests.” 

Many of the individuals housed in this group have been detained long term, Bruning said. Coronavirus may be a factor here. “They have gone through removal proceedings,” he said. “A lot of them have been detained for six to nine months because ICE has not been able to deport them in that entire period of time.”

According to Bruning, the airport in Mogadishu was closed up
until September 1, which perhaps delayed the deportations.* “It remains to be seen whether they can deport them now,” Bruning added. 

ICE in Washington, D.C., did not respond to Sahan Journal’s request for comment over email; the voice mailbox for media inquiries was not accepting messages. 

Bruning said ICE tends to be tight-lipped about the timing of deportations, citing operational security. He and the other attorneys working with the group have heard Ithat CE plans to deport the detainees on Thursday. But they have also heard the group would have to travel to Alexandria first. 

“If the flight were to happen, it would have to have happened yesterday,” Bruning said on Tuesday. “Originally the plan was for them to be quarantined for 14 days. That obviously has not worked out.”

Meanwhile, a hurricane looms, and could hit the jail in the next day, Bruning said. 


*Clarification: An earlier version of this story noted that the U.S. was unable to fly deportees into Mogadishu. Several carriers have recently resumed service to the airport.

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Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist. You can find her dance writing at the Star Tribune, and other writing at places like City Pages, Minnesota Monthly, the Southwest Journal, and...