Lawsuit accuses ICE, Sherburne County of jailing and trying to deport US citizen

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A Coon Rapids man is accusing a Minnesota county jail and the federal government of unlawfully detaining him for nearly a year, even after an immigration judge ruled he was a United States citizen and should not be deported.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU-MN) filed the lawsuit Thursday in the U.S. District Court in Minnesota on behalf of Ali Abdalla, 34.

"He was clearly a U.S. citizen," said ACLU-MN staff attorney Ian Bratlie. "He told them repeatedly he was a U.S. citizen. They ignored it. They didn’t investigate it like they were supposed to. Then a judge tells them, ‘he’s a U.S. citizen’ and they still held him and didn’t release him.”

The lawsuit was filed against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott, claiming the agencies violated Abdalla’s Fourth and 14th Amendment rights by false imprisonment and deprivation of liberty.

Spokesmen for ICE and the Sherburne County Sheriff declined to comment, both citing the pending litigation.

Abdalla gained U.S. citizenship through his father’s naturalization in 2003, after the family entered the United States as refugees from Somalia, according to court records.

However, the complaint shows ICE agents arrested Abdalla in 2010 and he was ordered to be deported after he was unable to hire an immigration attorney to explain his naturalization.

In 2017, ICE detained Abdalla again and moved him around multiple county jails in Minnesota. In the complaint, Abdalla claims he told the ICE officer he was a U.S. citizen but says the agent did nothing with the information and his detention continued.

"Essentially a year of his life was stolen from him by ICE,” Bratlie said.

Abdalla ultimately ended up in the Sherburne County jail in the spring of 2017, according to court records. An immigration judge halted Abdalla’s deportation proceedings in January 2018 and ruled he was, in fact, a U.S. citizen, but he remained behind bars another five months, during which ICE appealed the judge’s ruling.

Abdalla’s release was ordered in June 2018 after filing a Habeas Corpus petition, a legal document used to challenge unlawful detentions.

The Deportation Business: More detainees, more challenges, more money for local jails

Abdalla’s lawsuit is the latest legal challenge of ICE and the Sherburne County jail, which have been increasingly accused of wrongfully detaining immigrants. His habeas challenge is one of nearly 60 that name Sheriff Joel Brott along with federal authorities as defendants from 2017 to 2019, according to a 5 INVESTIGATES’ analysis of court records.

Last November, 5 INVESTIGATES reviewed 160 of those petitions dating back to 2017 and found immigrants spent months or years behind bars in county jails as they awaited deportation. Immigration attorneys say counties, such as Sherburne County, enter into what they call “lucrative” contracts to hold immigrants for ICE.

The longer detainees sit in those county jails, the more money those counties make. In all, ICE paid five counties nearly $15 million in 2018.

Sherburne County currently has a housing contract with ICE, but submitted an expansion proposal last summer. It would have added 200 more beds for immigrant detainees at the jail.

Tim Dolan, the County Board Chairman, defended the jail’s contract last November.

"I’d say we don’t necessarily have a financial incentive for this particular contract, but we have a financial incentive to make sure the jail cells we have are producing revenue to offset the expenses of operating the facility," Dolan said.

The county’s current ICE contract ends in 2022.

The ACLU-MN is now asking for the Sherburne County jail to create a policy to verify the citizenship of people in their custody. They’re also asking the courts to award Abdalla compensatory damages.