With his wrists and ankles shackled, Abdigani Faisal Hussein believed he was a dead man walking last year when federal agents marched him and dozens of other immigrants with active deportation orders toward a plane waiting outside a Louisiana detention center.

Abdigani Faisal Hussein was detained in March 2018 as part of the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants with deportation orders. After nine months in custody and nearly being sent back to a country he left 25 years ago, the native of Somalia recently received a deferment on his deportation. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Hussein, a Portland resident, had come to the United States as a refugee two decades earlier and feared that he would be killed within days of being deported to Somalia, a country that he had not seen in over 25 years.

“I was thinking I was losing everything – my children, my wife and the country I (spent) half of my life,” said Hussein, who is now 46.

But as his feet touched the stairs to board the plane, Hussein heard immigration agents call out his name. His lawyers had won a last-minute delay, the first in a series of rulings as Hussein tried to overturn the deportation order.

One of many immigrants in Maine and around the country caught up in the Trump administration’s crackdown on people with deportation orders, Hussein was arrested and detained on an outstanding order to send him back to a country that he fled as a teenager after narrowly surviving an attack on his family. But his story took several unusual turns and, last month, an immigration judge granted Hussein a deferment on his deportation order under the United Nations’ Conventions Against Torture, an international human rights treaty. That means he can continue to live and work in the United States for the foreseeable future, pending a possible appeal from the government.

“I feel lucky,” Hussein said. “I feel like a dead person who came back to life. It’s a miracle.”

Hussein’s attorneys say his case illustrates the draconian measures the Trump administration is deploying to crack down on immigration, including unlawful detentions, coercion and a bureaucratic quagmire that nearly led to their client’s deportation even though he had won temporary relief.

“It seemed clear that (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had no respect for his due process rights, let alone the specific request by his counsel to not meet with him without counsel present,” said Twain Braden, one of the Portland attorneys representing Hussein. “This proved a pattern, again and again.”

ICE representatives did not respond Wednesday to a request to answer questions about the case or respond to criticism about Hussein’s treatment. It’s not clear if the federal government intends to appeal.

Abdigani Faisal Hussein, center, with his attorneys, Benjamin Wahrer, left and Twain Braden, right, last week. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Our understanding is that this whole case is unusual,” said Benjamin Wahrer, another attorney representing Hussein. “It’s very difficult to win a motion to reopen. It’s like winning a motion for a new trial a decade later. And to even get to that step, we needed to file a federal lawsuit to … keep him in the country while his case was decided.”

LASTING SCARS FROM ATTACK

Hussein’s troubles in Somalia culminated when he was 16.

His family is part of the Tunni ethnic group, a minority in Somalia that historically has been a target of persecution. In January 1991, Hussein was at his Mogadishu home with his mother when members of the United Somali Congress, which is composed mostly of the majority Hawiye ethnic group, showed up looking for information about a family member.

Abdigani Faisal Hussein of Portland shows the scars from gunshot wounds he sustained in Somalia in an attack in which his mother was shot and killed. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

According to court documents, the USC members in Somalia shot and killed his mother because she would not divulge any information. Hussein also was shot – seven times in his legs and hips. The scars are still visible and Hussein said one bullet remains lodged in his hip.

With the help of family and friends, the wounded Hussein escaped to Kenya, where he remained for five years, waiting to come to the United States as a refugee. He was resettled in the U.S. in 1996 and became a lawful permanent resident.

After six years of driving a taxi in Boston, Hussein moved to Portland, where there was, and still is, a growing immigrant community. In 2002, he opened a halal market and restaurant on Forest Avenue – the city’s first, he said. He met his wife, Hibo Abdi, who is now a U.S. citizen. And the couple has three U.S.-born children, ages 14 through 16.

In 2002, Hussein also became the first person in Maine to be prosecuted for possessing khat, a common and legal stimulant in Africa and much of the world. And he was one of the first in the nation to be found guilty for a federal drug crime related to the plant.

When fresh, khat contains cathinone, though the chemical degrades and disappears after a few days. Lab tests on the khat taken from Hussein showed a detectable amount of cathinone, which is considered a controlled substance in the U.S. in the same category as cocaine, heroin and LSD.

He was charged with possessing and intending to distribute an illegal drug after he went to a Portland FedEx office and picked up a box of khat leaves for a friend. Hussein’s lawyers argued that he had no idea there was an illegal chemical in the delivery, and that even local drug agents didn’t know at first that the plant might contain an illegal drug. They compared khat to the coffee, tea or cigars that Americans have made their favorite daily stimulants.

Abdigani Faisal Hussein speaks with his family at home in Portland on Wednesday. His daughter Amira Hassan 14, far right, was explaining that she missed a class on her first day of high school because the school is large and new to her. Looking on are Abdi’s wife, Hibo Abdi, and daughter Faryaad Hassan, 15. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A federal judge reluctantly found him guilty, lamenting the ambiguity in khat’s legal status. He gave Hussein the lightest sentence possible – one year of probation. But it was a felony conviction that made him subject to deportation.

“The facts of the case and punishment didn’t seem overly serious, but the immigration consequences are what’s led us here today,” Wahrer said.

CHECK-INS WITH ICE

Hussein was first placed into deportation proceedings in 2016, but was released from detention and told to check in regularly with ICE in South Portland, which he did faithfully for 11 years.

Meanwhile, Hussein sold his market and got into the commercial trucking business. He traveled to Aroostook County to pick up loads of potatoes, blueberries or broccoli and delivered them throughout the South and Midwest. He would return to the Northeast with shipments of cheese, chicken, dry foods or other goods.

For years, life seemed to be going well. Then Hussein learned that the Trump administration planned to conduct immigration sweeps against people with outstanding deportation orders. He decided to continue checking in with ICE, rather than skipping his appointment or fleeing to Canada, as others had done to avoid deportation.

Abdi Hussein of Portland was picked up in March 2018 in the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants with deportation orders. He said that when he went for one of his regular check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “I did not come back.”  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I decided to stay because I have a family, children and a job,” Hussein said. “This is the life I built and I don’t want to give up easy and run.”

When he went to check in with ICE in March 2018, Hussein said he prepared his family for the worst.

“I told them that maybe I am not coming back,” Hussein said. “They cried – all of them. I went there and I did not come back.”

Hussein said he was taken into custody and transferred to Strafford County Detention Center in New Hampshire. The detention triggered a flurry of legal filings – from challenging what Hussein’s lawyers described as an unlawful detention to motions to defer his deportation and to reopen his immigration case.

Meanwhile, Hussein said, ICE agents entered his cell and tried to get him to sign a document agreeing to a voluntary deportation to Somalia. “They were forcing me,” Hussein said. “I didn’t sign nothing.”

A copy of the document says “refused to sign” where Hussein’s signature should be.

Braden, one of Hussein’s attorneys, said the event was particularly egregious because he had called and sent a letter to federal authorities instructing them not to have any direct communication with Hussein without the attorneys’ consent. “The audacity is just shocking,” Braden said.

With his deportation imminent, Hussein’s lawyers won a 14-day temporary restraining order to buy time for the Board of Immigration Appeals in Boston to consider reopening his case because of the worsening political situation in Somalia and risk that he would be targeted by militants there.

But the restraining order expired before a ruling, and Hussein was flown to Louisiana to join others being deported to Somalia. Hussein was set to be deported on June 28. He said he and dozens of other immigrants were awakened at 11 the previous night and told they had an hour to shower and eat before getting on the plane that was waiting just outside the gate.

Amira Hassan, 14, talks about her first day of high school Wednesday with her father, Abdi Hussein, at their home in Portland. Hussein says he stayed in Portland, rather than flee to Canada to avoid deportation, because of his family and job. “This is the life I built and I don’t want to give up easy and run.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But unbeknownst to Hussein, the Board of Immigration Appeals had granted the request filed by his attorneys to halt the deportation until it could decide whether to reopen his case. Braden and Wahrer were frantically trying to stop the deportation and reach their client, but Wahrer said he was told that it would take a week to schedule a phone call with Hussein.

Shortly before his scheduled departure, agents chained his wrists and legs, and began putting detainees on the plane. Hussein said he had one foot on the stairs leading to the plane when he heard his name called and he was taken back into the detention facility.

“I cried for one hour,” Hussein said.

Hussein didn’t speak with his attorneys until the following day, when he learned his deportation had been temporarily blocked. He was sent back to New Hampshire on July 2, where he remained in custody until November.

NINE MONTHS OF DETENTION

Wahrer, the attorney, next focused on ending what he called Hussein’s unlawful detention. He had been held without a bail hearing since March, which Wahrer said was a violation of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing due process in criminal proceedings.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, Wahrer argued that immigration officials can hold people without bail only if they are detained immediately after being released for the deportable offense. In this case, that offense was Hussein’s 2004 conviction for khat.

A federal judge in New Hampshire agreed and Hussein was released on bail in November, after being detained for nine months.

Now free to argue his deportation case in immigration court, Hussein received valuable testimony from former Ambassador Robert Gosende, who served as President Bill Clinton’s special envoy to Somalia in the early 1990s. Gosende’s testimony about clan loyalties, the rise of Al Shabaab, a lack of an effective central government and specific dangers facing Hussein figured heavily in U.S. Immigration Judge Mario Sturla’s decision to defer his deportation under the United Nations’ Conventions Against Torture.

Gosende equated Hussein’s deportation as being “tantamount to a death warrant,” Sturla wrote in his decision.

Wahrer said the decision, which he received Aug. 20, is only a deferral of Hussein’s deportation. The removal order could be reinstated if the situation in Somalia changes or if the federal government appeals the deferment by a Sept. 9 deadline.

But for Hussein, who has been living with the threat of deportation hanging over his head for the last 15 years, the deferment was a new lease on life.

“I thought I was done, but now I have hope,” he said. “And hope always is good.”

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