Federal immigration officers detained an asylum seeker from Somalia after his court appearance Thursday in Portland on a drunken-driving charge.

It was the first such detention in Maine that immigration attorneys or state officials are aware of since the inauguration of President Trump, who ran on a platform of aggressive immigration enforcement and has made it a priority in the early part of his presidency. Federal immigration officials have carried out arrests of immigrants in courthouses in other states, drawing criticism from state officials and immigration advocates.

Abdi Ali

Tina Nadeau, who was serving as the court-appointed lawyer of the day for recently charged defendants making their first appearances in Cumberland County Superior Court, said she was meeting with the man, Abdi Ali, 28, of Westbrook, in a conference room after his brief appearance on the misdemeanor charge.

As they were wrapping up, three men entered the room, announced that they were U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and said, “We’re here for him,” gesturing toward Ali.

Nadeau told them they would have to wait until she was done. After the three men left and stood outside the room, she told Ali not to say anything to them.

When Ali left the conference room, the ICE agents handcuffed him roughly, Nadeau said. As he was being led away, she said she saw two court officers clapping.

Nadeau said she didn’t know much about Ali’s history, but believes he has been living in this country for many years and that his parents live locally. She said he is single and does not have children.

Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, said in a written statement that Ali had an “extensive” misdemeanor criminal history that included two convictions for assault.

“ICE officers took Mr. Ali into custody, in accordance with agency protocols, after Mr. Ali tried to resist arrest. Mr. Ali is currently in ICE custody, pending removal proceedings,” the statement said.

OUI RARELY A DEPORTABLE OFFENSE

Ali’s arrest occurred on the same day that Stephen Schwartz, the United States’ first ambassador to Somalia in 25 years, was visiting Maine, a state where many Somalis have settled over the last two decades. There are about 12,500 immigrants from seven east African countries, including Somalia, now living in Maine, according to the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine. Maine’s largest Somali populations are in Portland and Lewiston.

Ali was being held at the Cumberland County Jail, according to an official there.

Portland Deputy Police Chief Vern Malloch said Ali was charged with OUI on Feb. 28 after he was pulled over on Forest Avenue for having a light out on his vehicle. Malloch said the incident was uneventful, according to a report.

Thursday was Ali’s initial appearance on the charge. Details of his prior criminal record in Maine could not be determined Thursday. An online criminal background check of state records requested in the morning did not generate a report by Thursday evening.

OUI, especially a misdemeanor-level charge, is not usually considered a deportable offense for anyone who is otherwise complying with immigration laws, said Susan Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project.

Roche was aware of Thursday’s incident at the courthouse, but didn’t have any details.

She said if the ICE agents had a warrant for Ali, they could probably assert that they have the legal authority to arrest him at the court. But she also said immigration advocates are troubled by the practice, which has been used in other states, including California, Arizona, Texas and Colorado, where ICE agents, sometimes uniformed, sometimes not, have walked into courtrooms or waited outside courthouses to arrest immigrants. Those arrests have focused mainly on immigrants who are in the country illegally.

The practice has come under fire from immigration advocates and local law enforcement, who say immigrants may become fearful of reporting crimes or seeking justice if they believe they may be deported as a result.

“It’s really a horrible policy,” Roche said. “The courtroom is where you have victims and where you have people going to seek justice. They’re not going to feel safe if they might get arrested by ICE.”

JUDICIAL BRANCH TO REVIEW CASE

Mary Ann Lynch, a spokeswoman for the Maine Judicial Branch, said there is no state policy regarding these types of arrests and she declined to weigh in on what happened.

“This is something new, but I think we’ll certainly be taking a look at it,” she said.

Lynch said officials were investigating whether court officers were clapping as Ali was led away, as Nadeau said. Lynch noted that everyone who comes to court should be treated with respect.

Roche said the next step for Ali is likely to be a determination by ICE on bail. He can appeal a refusal to grant bail or seek to have bail lowered with the immigration court in Boston, she said, a process that normally takes a week or two. Then hearings by immigration courts will follow and his route through those courts will vary, based on his immigration status and how long he’s been in the U.S., Roche said.

She said the standards for what kind of offense can result in deportation aren’t always clear-cut and, in any case, a conviction must take place, not just a charge.

For instance, she said, a conviction for drug trafficking almost always would result in deportation, but the standards for deportation because of crimes of moral turpitude and even crimes of violence are less clear.

A person’s immigration status also matters. Immigrants with permanent resident status have much more protection against deportation than asylum seekers or those with temporary protection status, which is reviewable every 18 months.

Even the route through immigration court is hazy, Roche said, and can be as quick as a couple of months or drawn out to more than a year.

ARRESTS AT COURTHOUSES CRITICIZED

After an initial hearing to determine if the immigrant will contest deportation, the judge sets a date for a trial, where it will be determined if the person should be deported. After that, there’s another hearing to determine if there’s any eligibility for relief, and some decisions can be appealed, she said.

Roche wasn’t sure how ICE officials knew Ali would be in court Thursday, but said a court official might have let them know or ICE agents could have checked the dockets for any appearances by people they were seeking.

Pious Ali, a Portland city councilor and immigrant from Ghana, posted on Facebook about Thursday’s arrest.

“I am disappointed at the news that a member of our community was allegedly taken by immigration officers (ICE) at the courthouse,” Ali wrote. “Lurking at courthouses to arrest immigrants is shortsighted and not the best way to implement immigration laws. Acts like this will negatively affect the relationship between local law enforcement and the immigrant community and are not in the best interest of our community and city.”

Zachary Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, also said the practice of detaining people at courthouses was chilling.

“I was hoping Maine might be spared from this,” he said. “Courthouses have historically been a place for justice. The system simply will not work if the constant fear of being wrenched away exists.”

DANGER OF PUBLIC CONFRONTATIONS

Several prosecutors in California wrote this week to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly that the administration should reconsider the practice.

“ICE courthouse arrests make all Californians less safe. These practices deter residents concerned about their immigration status from appearing in court – including as crime victims and witnesses – jeopardizing effective prosecution of criminals who may then re-offend,” the April 4 letter reads. “Courthouse enforcement by ICE also risks confrontations that could endanger members of the public at courthouses throughout our state.

“No one should fear that their immigration status prevents them from seeking justice, whether as a crime victim or otherwise. ICE’s practice is antithetical to a fair system of justice that must protect all of us.”

Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for ICE, told the Los Angeles Times that agents are told not to arrest people in “sensitive locations” such as schools, places of worship and hospitals, when possible, but that doesn’t cover courthouses.

ICE officials have defended the practice, saying arresting people at courthouses may sometimes be safer because people are screened before they enter, so they are less likely to carry weapons.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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