For a brief moment in December 2017, the international spotlight shined on the case of 92 deportees who were on an Immigration and Customs Enforcement-chartered flight to Somalia. Most such flights unload their human cargo once they land, but this flight, for logistical reasons, returned home — and brought witnesses back with it.
The Somalis told of abuse on the flight, saying they were shackled with chains on their wrists, waists, and legs for more than 40 hours; forced to urinate in bottles or on themselves; and that ICE officers beat and threatened some passengers. (ICE has denied that it mistreated detainees on the flight.)
But even after the spotlight dimmed, the abuse continued. The Somalis are still being held at the Krome Detention Center and the Glades County Detention Center in Florida, as their lawyers try to fight their deportations. At Glades, where half the group is being held, they have complained of a litany of abuses, including violent assaults by guards, denial of medical care, lack of access to their lawyers, and racism.
“The guards and the administration up there at Glades, they think they’re immune. To me, it’s so brazen to be doing this. They know there’s a federal case. They know we’re up there all the time. They know there are investigators up there,” said Lisa Lehner, an attorney at Americans for Immigrant Justice, one of the groups representing the Somalis. “They called them ‘niggers.’ They called them ‘boy.’ They’ve said things like, ‘We’re sending you boys back to the jungle.’” An ICE spokesperson in Miami declined to answer questions about the complaints coming from Glades, citing pending litigation.
The treatment of the 92 Somalis, both on board the ICE-chartered plane and at the Glades detention center, is not a case of a few operators gone rogue and exposes the very limited avenues for accountability available to those who are abused in ICE custody, as well as the particular vulnerability of those who experience aggression on their way out of the United States.
Rebecca Merton, a program coordinator at Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, or CIVIC, said that there is a logic to the mayhem: The abusive conditions eventually wear down the will of detainees to stay and fight their deportation orders in court. “One way that ICE, and particularly [Enforcement and Removal Operations, an ICE sub-office], achieves its goal of mass deportation is by subjecting people to indefinite detention in terrible conditions without any source of hope, or sometimes, outside contact,” said Merton.
Two weeks after the failed deportation flight, the 92 Somalis sued ICE for “inhumane conditions and egregious abuse” on the flight and asked the court to halt their deportations.
“As the plane sat on the runway, the 92 detainees remained bound, their handcuffs secured to their waists, and their feet shackled together,” the complaint — filed by a team of lawyers from the Immigration Clinic at the University of Miami Law School, Americans for Immigrant Justice, the James H. Binger Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School, and Legal Aid Service of Broward County — reads.
“When the plane’s toilets overfilled with human waste, some of the detainees were left to urinate into bottles or on themselves. ICE agents wrapped some who protested, or just stood up to ask a question, in full-body restraints. ICE agents kicked, struck, or dragged detainees down the aisle of the plane, and subjected some to verbal abuse and threats.”
ICE Air Operations is a division of the agency responsible for deportation flights. “ICE Air Operations personnel follow best practices when it comes to the security, safety and welfare of the aliens returned to their countries of origin,” its website reads. “There are a variety of [Enforcement and Removal Operations] personnel on board who ensure the health and safety of the aliens and officers during removal flights.”
But that’s not what happened on December 7, when the plane stopped in Senegal to refuel, then sat on a runway there for 23 hours before being re-routed to Miami. ICE explained the delay in a statement it issued in December. “The relief crew was unable to get sufficient crew rest due to issues with their hotel in Dakar,” so the aircraft remained parked so that the crew could rest. “The allegations of ICE mistreatment onboard the Somali flight are categorically false. No one was injured during the flight, and there were no incidents or altercations that would have caused any injuries on the flight.”
Lehner said some of her clients reported that officers on board the airplane apologized to the immigrants when they realized the flight would be returning to the United States. It was not clear whether those who apologized were ICE officers or private contractors, she said.
A number of major media outlets, including the New York Times, reported on the failed deportation flight; the news was later picked up by Somali media. The Somalis argued in the lawsuit that, if they were to be returned to Somalia, they would be “killed or harmed due to changed circumstances in Somalia created by the media coverage and notoriety of the aborted and abusive December 7 flight.” (A team of pro bono lawyers is helping the Somalis try to reopen their past immigration cases in pursuit of immigration relief. An immigration court has agreed to reopen at least one of their cases so far.)
Though ICE had been planning to take another shot at deporting the 92 people — most of them men, many of them longtime residents of the United States who fled horrors in Somalia and have U.S. citizen family members — in December, a judge at the Miami federal court halted their deportations at least until January 2. That order has since been extended, as the court continues to weigh preliminary issues related to the lawsuit.
The lawyers also filed an administrative complaint with the DHS Inspector General and Civil Rights and Civil Liberties offices — one of few options available to victims of excessive force seeking accountability. In addition to laying out what happened on the deportation flight, the complaint includes recommendations for amendments to ICE’s shackling policy. Fatma Marouf, a professor at the Texas A&M University Law School, wrote in the complaint that medical studies indicate that “the extreme form of shackling used on the 92 deportees could cause significant psychological harm.”
In the weeks that followed, the Somalis being held at Glades have complained of physical abuse by guards at the county jail that doubles as an immigration detention center. The conditions at the jail — pepper spray as a form of punishment and lack of access to medical care, to name a few — are the subject of a separate administrative complaint, court filings, and a letter to a congressional representative and state senator.
Khadar Ibrahim, who fled Somalia nearly three decades ago after his father was murdered and his aunt was raped in a brutal civil war, said he was roughed up both on the flight and at Glades. At one point on the deportation flight, Ibrahim stood up to use the bathroom, and an ICE officer picked him up from his waist and threw him to the ground headfirst, according to court documents. He experienced neck pain for weeks after.
Then, at Glades, he watched a fight unfold between two detainees over access to a phone on Christmas Day. He watched from his dormitory as guards beat up another detainee who tried to break up the fight, and when a guard used pepper spray against one of the men involved in the fight, other detainees in the dorm inhaled some of it too, according to an administrative complaint. The next day, after two other eyewitnesses asked to speak to a captain about what had happened, an officer identified as “Sergeant Mims” in the complaint escorted Ibrahim and two other men to segregation cells. (ICE declined to comment on the complaint.)
“On the way to segregation and while handcuffed, Sergeant Mims tackled me from behind,” Ibrahim wrote in a sworn statement. “I fell forward and hit my head on the floor and it made my neck hurt very badly. We went to medical, and I told the nurse my neck hurt. Sergeant Mims told her it was nothing and she did not examine me. She did not ask me any questions, check my blood pressure, or take my temperature. She only spoke to Sergeant Mims.”
“Glades staff have used pepper spray, segregation, shackling and physical abuse on our clients in a discriminatory display of excessive force,” the administrative complaint — filed with two Department of Homeland Security offices — reads. “They have used racial slurs to berate them, including the words ‘nigger’ and ‘boy.’ They have interfered with our clients’ right to make a grievance by threatening them and placing them in segregation when they express their intention to file a grievance.”
ICE has long come under fire for conditions at its detention facilities across the country. Krome, the Miami detention center where half of the Somali group is being held, was haunted by reports of beatings and rapes in the 1980s and 1990s, but complaints of abuse largely subsided after the facility was upgraded in the mid-aughts. “Some complaints still occasionally surface — but Krome officials say they are investigated quickly,” the Miami Herald reported in 2015. “It’s very, very different from its former self,” Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice, told the Miami New Times three years ago.
Glades also has its fair share of problems. Lawyers from the Immigration Clinic of the University of Miami Law School, after touring the center in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2016, sent letters to the leadership of Glades and Krome, raising concerns about detention conditions. For example, two years ago, the clinic identified a number of issues, including “abusive and inappropriate officer interactions with detainees; medical attention; [and] attorney access to detainees and lack of attorney-client confidentiality and privacy.”
Other immigration detention centers — many of them operated by private prison corporations — are also plagued by abuses. In December, a Department of Homeland Security watchdog reported that, at four of five detention facilities it inspected, it found conditions “that undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.” The report, issued by the DHS Office of the Inspector General, said that medical care may have been delayed and that there was a lack of cleanliness at several facilities. “Documentation of daily medical visits and meal records for detainees being held in segregation was also missing or incomplete,” the inspector general found. “Some of these issues may simply be a matter of inadequate documentation, but they could also indicate more serious problems with potential misuse of segregation.”
Immigrant detainees have also reported physical abuse at a number of detention centers. A 2016 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and the Adelante Alabama Worker Center found inadequate medical care and widespread abuses at six immigration detention centers in the South. “Detained immigrants described being subjected to physical abuse, retaliation and excessive use of segregation and lockdown by detention center staff and ICE officers,” according to the report. “There is also a general lack of protection from violence within the facilities.”
“It’s not a couple of facilities that aren’t meeting ICE standards, or a couple of guards who are racist and abusive,” said Merton. “The entire system is treating people the way the Trump administration wants them to.”
While CIVIC, which believes in abolishing the immigration detention system, condemned abuses in the system long before Donald Trump was elected on a vehemently anti-immigrant agenda, Merton said the last administration was much more responsive to complaints. “If there was enough public pressure, the Obama administration might have done something about individual cases or made policy changes at a particular facility,” Merton explained. “Under the Trump administration, it’s like they really don’t care that their brutality is being put on full display. It seems at times they want the reports to come out to instill fear in immigrant communities.”
Clara Long, who researches immigration policy at Human Rights Watch, told The Intercept that she has received complaints about ICE officers using excessive force when getting people to sign deportation orders, “like pulling people’s arm, pushing them to sign, that kind of coercion.” (The signing of deportation documents usually happens at ICE field offices, not detention centers.)
Another context in which immigrants report excessive force, Long said, is when they’re being loaded onto deportation flights, especially for people who are being forcibly deported. When ICE tried to deport the 92 Somalis in December, it was supposed to be a one-way flight. But after the immigrants unexpectedly were brought back to the United States, they were able to file an administrative complaint. Most deportees don’t have the chance to do even that.
“One problem is making sure that people have the opportunity to make a complaint, so when you’re talking about a system that’s churning out people rapidly,” Long said, “if someone is not coming back and is experiencing some sort of an excessive use of force while being while on a deportation flight, there’s a huge barrier to be able to make a complaint.”
In 2009, the Obama administration announced a long-term plan to overhaul the immigration detention system. Under the reforms, ICE moved away from its decentralized network of jails to a system of federal oversight. One significant change was the creation of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning, which was meant to “plan and design a civil detention system tailored to ICE’s needs.”
“In 2009, the administration identified a series of reforms that it wanted to be implemented immediately, and then over time we identified additional areas where improvement was necessary,” said Kevin Landy, a former ICE assistant director who headed the office, which had a staff of five, from 2010 to 2017.
Under the Trump administration, the office has ceased to function as an independent unit within ICE. Instead, its staff and work have been “absorbed into existing detention management components and will continue as a part of ICE’s daily operations,” ICE spokesperson Sarah Rodriguez said. What once was a standalone office that reported to the ICE director is now effectively a part of Enforcement and Removal Operations, the wing of ICE that carries out deportations and is responsible for detaining and transporting immigrants in ICE custody. Many of the office’s key policy changes, such as the policy directing the use of segregation, remain in effect, Rodriguez noted.
One of the biggest steps the office took under the Obama administration was the promulgation of what are known as the 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards, or PBNDS, a revision of the 2008 PBNDS and the 2000 National Detention Standards, or NDS. Generally speaking, the PBNDS are in force at “dedicated” facilities — centers that house only ICE detainees, while the NDS continue to apply at shared-use county jails, like Glades.
A 2016 report from the National Immigration Justice Center found that the “patchwork application of three different sets of detention standards results in confusion about which standards are applicable during inspections, and uneven protections for detained immigrants.”
The detention standards contain guidance on everything from food in detention centers to visitation to religious practices to use of force by detention facility staff. They include standards both for detainee discipline and grievances, and give detainees the option of filing complaints internally or with an ICE field office. Detainees can also file civil lawsuits or complain directly to the DHS Inspector General and Civil Rights and Civil Liberties offices, and, in theory, to law enforcement. The ICE Office of Professional Responsibility is another body that oversees detention centers and ensures that detention standards are abided by.
How well that is ensured is an open question. “It’s problematic when an agency is tasked with investigating the abuses that occur under its own supervision,” said Merton, noting that an April 2017 complaint CIVIC filed with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Liberties has gone unacknowledged. “ICE audits tend to be perfunctory at best. It’s just checking off a list without listening to what people in these facilities are saying.”
On the evening of February 9, some of the toilets in the isolation cells at Glades were clogged and spewing sewage on the floor, making them impossible to use. The Somali men in segregation complained, and one of them, Agane Warsame, asked for a mop to clean his cell. In response, officers “sprayed pepper spray through the slots of their cells, making them unable to breathe,” according to court records. “The officers called the men ‘niggers’ and told them to ‘go back to the jungle.’ Glades officers inflicted beatings on Agane Warsame” and possibly one other man, according to court records. ICE refuted this account in court records, and said the “claims of excessive force are meritless.”
The filth caused by the overflowing toilets, unbearable for anyone, poses a special problem for the Somali men, most of whom are Muslim, noted Lehner, the attorney from Americans for Immigrant Justice. “This also raises the issue of the facility’s lack of respect for the Somalis’ religious faith. They are unable to pray when their cells are filthy,” she said, also noting that the facility has refused to provide the inmates with religious-compliant meals. (One Jewish Somali man told his lawyers that he had repeatedly asked for kosher meals and was subsequently placed in isolation, Lehner said.)
Asked to comment on the detainees’ claims, Nestor Yglesias, an ICE spokesperson in Miami, sent a link to the detention standards and wrote, “This link addresses how ICE operates every center.” In court filings, ICE said Warsame was being disruptive by yelling and kicking on the door of his cell while asking for a mop, spurring other detainees to exhibit “disorderly behavior.” Warsame was taken out of his cell “to limit his disruptive participation in the ongoing disturbance within the segregation unit, and he was pepper sprayed outside of his cell, after he became “actively aggressive” and cursed and spit at a guard, according to ICE.
Warsame’s lawyers, after hearing about the altercation, rushed to Glades to investigate. They found him “so injured he cannot walk” and in a wheelchair, with a possibly broken hip, according to court records. An incident report from the detention center included details about the malfunctioning toilets and the pepper spray, but omitted mention of “the documented physical abuse of Mr. Warsame officers,” his attorneys wrote in an emergency motion to the court.
Following the incident, Warsame’s lawyers asked the court to order a transfer of the Somali detainees out of Glades. “We were really scared for people’s lives,” Lehner, who filed the motion, said. That effort was unsuccessful.
Under the 2000 National Detention Standards, ICE officer are “under no circumstances” allowed to use force to punish a detainee and can only use the amount of force necessary “to gain control of the detainee.” Under those standards, medical personnel must examine a detainee after any use of force and immediately treat injuries. Officers can use nonlethal weapons, such as pepper spray, if a detainee is armed or barricaded, cannot be approached without endangering himself or others, or if a delay in using force to control the situation would seriously endanger the detainee or others.
“The use of pepper spray also has to be discussed in advance with medical staff, unless that’s not possible,” said Landy. “In my opinion, pepper spray should only be used against a detainee already confined in a segregated cell only in very rare circumstances.”
At least eight detainees had previously said they experienced abuse at Glades, according to an 88-page complaint the lawyers who are representing the Somalis in their federal lawsuit filed on January 8. The detainees had been subjected to physical abuse, excessive force followed by denial of medical attention, and inadequate medical care, according to the complaint. The Miami-based lawyers, who make the 100-mile trek to Glades as needed, including when their clients report threats to their safety, have been keeping a meticulous log of injuries sustained in detention and the type of medical care that followed.
Warsame said that after he had asked about another detainee who “guards had touched for no reason,” he was found guilty of “inciting a demonstration” and punished with 30 days in a segregation unit. On January 3, Warsame was allowed to take a shower. When a guard took him back to his cell, Warsame stuck his wrist out of a slot in the door so that the guard would remove his handcuffs. “A guard twisted Warsame’s hand so that the handcuff cut into the skin on his wrist, leaving it bleeding and swollen,” according to the complaint. “The next day, a nurse looked at him, but refused to treat the cuts on his wrist.”
Every detainee admitted to an immigration detention center is given a copy of ICE’s detainee handbook, a 28-page document with information on topics such as meals, dress code, and visitation. Also included, about halfway through the handbook, is information about filing grievances. It tells detainees what their options at the detention facility are — verbal or written complaints, emergency grievances, and appeals — as well as how to contact outside offices, such as that of the inspector general. The Office of Professional Responsibility’s 2017 review of detention facilities found “a higher instance of situations in which local facility handbooks and postings were missing mandatory information,” including regarding grievance procedures.
The guidance on filing grievances mirrors the policies laid out in the agency’s detention standards. Under the 2000 NDS, a detainee must be allowed “to submit a formal, written grievance to the facility’s grievance committee. The detainee may take this step because he/she is not satisfied with the outcome of the informal process, or because he/she decides to forgo the informal procedures.”
“Some facilities have a policy where they encourage verbal over written grievances,” said Merton, referring to a policy in the NDS that says facilities should try to resolve grievances at the lowest level before escalating to a formal complaint. “They basically prevent a paper trail by telling folks to just tell a deputy about it. Because there’s no oversight, these people are in a really vulnerable position where their grievances are not being recorded, and they may not have any contact with the outside world.”
At Glades, several Somali detainees said their right to file grievances has been impeded. Glades employees “have interfered with our clients’ right to make a grievance by threatening them and placing them in segregation when they express their intention to file a grievance,” according to the administrative complaint.
Warsame said when he asked to file a formal grievance, “the sergeant refused, cursing at him, and saying ‘You Somalis are demanding things. … This is how we do things in Glade County,’” according to the complaint, which ICE declined to comment on. Afterward, he was sent to a segregation unit.
“It would be highly inappropriate” for facility staff to retaliate against a detainee for filing a grievance, Landy said. If ICE were to investigate the Somalis’ complaints and find them to be credible, he added, there are, in theory, a few routes the agency could take. “They could ask a detention facility to discipline or fire the staff responsible. Depending on the contract provisions in effect at the facility, ICE could seek to impose monetary sanctions and more likely, they could address it informally through communications with the facility and a request for implementation of remedial measures.”
The Office of the Inspector General is investigating conditions at Glades, following the complaint from the Somalis, Lehner said. Investigators have made several trips to the facility, most recently on March 1, when they interviewed three of the detainees with complaints, she said. The office did not respond to a request for comment
Some of the detainees have reported guards saying things to them like, “The reason we’re taking it out on you is that it’s the lawyers fault, it’s the Miami lawyers’ fault,” Lehner said. She reported this to Juan Acosta, the assistant field office director for the ICE Miami Field Office, who told her immediately that it could not be true. (Yglesias, the ICE spokesperson in Miami, declined to comment on this account.)
“The thing that’s so appalling about that is that every single time we meet with them, they tell us how horrible it is,” Lehner added, “and we tell them, ‘Whatever you do, don’t act out, because if you do, they’ll take it out on you and they’ll take it out on us.’”
As the investigative process goes on, the Somalis remain in detention, hoping for one more opportunity to fight their deportations before an immigration judge. If they are unsuccessful in getting their immigration cases reopened — or if they’re ultimately met with denials — they will be sent back to Somalia, another long journey in ICE custody, with an even less certain ending on the ground.