Saturday May 19, 2018
By Mila Koumpilova
Citizenship claim is upheld by immigration judge, but man is still being detained.
The U.S. government wants to deport Ali Abdalla to Somalia. The hurdle? The Twin Cities man insists he is an American.
The case hinges on a simple but disputed biographical detail: Abdalla’s birth date.
he was born Jan. 1, a date assigned to thousands of refugees like him
from countries where many don’t know their birthdays or don’t have
government records. But his family says his actual birthday was months
later, which would mean Abdalla was a minor when his father was
naturalized in July 2003 and he automatically became a U.S. citizen,
Cities immigration judge sided with Abdalla in January, dealing a blow
to a bid to deport him after a string of criminal convictions. Yet he
remains in detention pending an appeal by the government, which
questioned the authenticity of a birth certificate the family produced.
Abdalla’s lawyer is asking a federal judge to intervene.
is emblematic of the government appealing every win and keeping people
in custody so it exhausts them,” said the attorney, Kim Hunter.
and Customs Enforcement could not comment on Abdalla’s case because of
the pending lawsuit. But Jim Stolley, chief counsel at the agency’s St.
Paul field office, said ICE investigates claims of U.S. citizenship
the assigned Jan. 1 birth dates are rarely an issue. But immigrants who
have exhausted their legal options to stay have been known to make
citizenship claims as a last resort, sometimes backed up by relatives
desperate not to see them deported to countries they once fled.
“An alien with a lengthy and serious criminal history is more likely to make a citizenship claim at the 11th hour,” he said.
ICE has recently faced scrutiny after a Los Angeles Times report
highlighting relatively rare cases in which U.S. citizens spent months
in detention while trying to prove they did not belong in the agency’s
arrived in the United States in 1996 with his family, refugees from
Somalia’s civil war. He, his parents and siblings were all listed with
the same birthday: Jan. 1.
and immigration officials have assigned the date to natives of Somalia
and other African and Asian countries. In some cases, residents there
don’t celebrate and track birthdays, or else use traditional calendars.
In others, governments did not keep birth records, or refugees lost
documents amid upheavals.
practice can create complications for both immigrants and U.S.
authorities, for instance, in figuring out whether newcomers are
eligible for public education or Social Security benefits. A 2013 Minnesota Law Review article
explored how “the immigrant age problem” can pose challenges in the
criminal justice system, where defendants face dramatically lesser
sentences if they are tried as juveniles.
also comes up in cases like Abdalla’s, involving claims of derivative
citizenship granted to those younger than 18 when their parents are
became a legal permanent resident two years after his arrival. But
following an attempted drug sale, disorderly conduct, theft and assault
convictions, ICE set out to deport him in 2010. He told an ICE officer
he believed he was a U.S. citizen, but the agency and an immigration
judge were not convinced.
ordered deported at a time when the United States was not sending people
back to Somalia. He went on to rack up convictions for violating a
domestic protection order, fifth-degree assault and marijuana possession
deportations to Somalia resumed, Abdalla was detained by immigration
authorities in July. Last fall, the local immigration court agreed to
revisit his case. His father, Mohamed Suleyman, testified and provided a
sworn affidavit that Abdalla’s birthday was not in January but in
December 1985, making him 17 at the time Suleyman became a U.S. citizen.
told the judge he was sure Abdalla was born in December because the
family held a large traditional celebration in honor of his birth, and
the Somali economy tanked soon after. He also produced a birth
certificate listing Abdalla’s birth date as Dec. 24, which he says a
relative still living in Mogadishu tracked down years ago.
“In front of God, I just told all the truth,” he said in an interview.
Once again, the government was not convinced.
forensics lab found an alteration to the English version of Abdalla’s
name on the certificate, though it could not say whether the change was
made earlier to fix an error or more recently to tamper with the
document. It also noted that Ali Haji Musse, who signed the certificate
as mayor of Mogadishu, was not the city’s mayor in 1985.
Citizenship and Immigration Services pointed to that analysis as one
reason it denied Abdalla’s request for a certificate of citizenship last
year. It noted his father had listed only Abdalla’s birth year on a
resettlement form, leaving the day and month blank. And Abdalla had
consistently used the Jan. 1 birth date, the agency said.
appealing the decision. For one thing, she said, changing one’s official
birth date is a tall order, so Abdalla stuck with the date assigned to
Judge Ryan Wood found Abdalla’s father credible and noted the forensic
analysis of the certificate was inconclusive. This is also a case of
simple math, Wood said: Assuming the Jan. 1 birthday was likely
arbitrarily assigned, there were 181 days in 2003 before the July 1
naturalization of Abdalla’s father and 183 days after, or a 50.14
percent chance Abdalla’s birthday came after the ceremony.
also submitted as evidence several birth certificates signed around the
same time by Ali Haji Musse along with letters from ICE suggesting the
agency had provided them to the Somali Embassy to request travel
documents for deportees.
difficult to understand how these birth certificates can be deemed
reliable for removal, but not for claims of United States citizenship,”
Wood noted in his order dismissing Abdalla’s deportation case.
ICE said birth certificates are used only with extensive other documentation when seeking travel documents for deportees.
is challenging Wood’s decision. Hunter asked the federal court in
Minneapolis to order Abdalla’s release after more than nine months in
ICE custody. The government has until May 22 to respond.
the St. Paul ICE office’s chief counsel, said the agency calls on
officials to begin investigating citizenship claims and alert higher-ups
in the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters within 24 hours of
receiving such claims.
“No one wants to keep any U.S. citizens in custody, because we have no jurisdiction over them,” he said.