December 22 2018, 7:44 a.m.
IBRAHIM MUSA LIVED a quiet life in Duluth, a small Georgia town about 27 miles northeast of Atlanta. The Somali immigrant worked as a technician at a local Nissan dealership, and he spent most of his free time with his wife and their four children. He watched his daughter Iqran, now 20, grow into a young woman; he played basketball with his sons Khalid, 17, and Khadar, 14; and he played with Abdirhman, the 10-year-old baby of the family. “The joyfulness, being around them, being the provider, being a dad, and now raising my kids,” he told me. “That was more important to me than my [immigration] papers, you know?”
It became a predictable pattern: work and family, family and work, and, when there was time, friends and community. Once a year, he would take a break from the humdrum routine of his everyday life for a check-in at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Atlanta. Musa had a final order of deportation, but given his clean record and family ties to the country, he was not a priority for removal. As long as he showed up when ICE asked, he stayed in the agency’s good graces. To him, these annual appointments merely gave him a chance to “kick the can down the road,” as he puts it, to postpone the inevitability of his deportation back to Somalia. He just hoped he’d be able to delay his departure long enough so that his oldest children would be ready to look after their younger siblings.
Musa, who speaks softly despite his tall and commanding figure, avoids linking his predicament as an immigrant to the country’s shifting political winds. The immigration system has been broken for a long time, and Barack Obama, like others before him, failed to fix it, Musa told me. His perspective on being deported, as he explained it, is pragmatic: “The reality is to deal with it when the time comes.” But it’s no coincidence that within months of the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House, Musa’s metaphorical can reached the end of the road.
Musa was scheduled to check in with ICE on April 27, 2017. Fifteen days prior to that date, ICE agents came looking for him at home. When they didn’t find him, they called him up and said they needed an updated pay stub for their records. He agreed to meet them in the parking lot of a nearby Publix grocery store, went there with a friend, and was met by a number of ICE agents, who’d come in three cars. They arrested him and took him to their local field office.
A few hours later, Musa was transferred to the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. Over the next 15 months, he traversed the maze of immigration detention. After spending nearly eight months at Irwin, he was sent to a Louisiana detention center for a week, then to an airport in Alexandria, Louisiana, where he boarded an ICE-chartered flight to Somalia. He spent 23 hours on a runway in Dakar, Senegal, before being returned to the Krome Detention Center in Miami. Finally, for now at least, he made it home.
Musa’s odyssey is typical of the deportee experience, except in the ways that it’s not. When he and 91 others boarded a flight to Somalia on December 7, 2017, they were among tens of thousands of immigrants who were shipped out of the United States last year — often to now-unfamiliar countries they fled years ago. But in what ICE describes as a technical problem with an airplane, and Musa describes as divine intervention, he and his fellow passengers were brought back to the U.S. after being deported.
In a sense, deportation is a bureaucratic procedure that, except to the deportees and their families, seems to end once an immigrant is sent overseas. That Musa and his flight-mates returned to speak of what they witnessed and experienced onboard that flight is a striking anomaly. This unlikely scenario unexpectedly gave Musa a second chance at a life in the only country his children have ever called home.
He was also one of nine Atlanta-area Somalis picked up by ICE in April 2017, according to local advocacy groups. Most lived in Clarkston, a small town of about 13,000 people that has welcomed tens of thousands of refugees in recent decades. The arrests were carried out over a couple of weeks and spanned two counties, but to residents it was a singular act — a raid. It sent ripples through an immigrant population largely comprised of refugees — whose presence in the United States is indisputably legal — that had never before been caught in the crosshairs of ICE.
A sign welcoming refugees sits in a window at Refuge Coffee Co. in Clarkston, Ga.
Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Intercept
A Town With Heart
On first impression, Clarkston looks like any other small Southern town. On the way in from Atlanta, drivers pass a blue and white welcome sign declaring: “Small town … Big Heart.” Clustered around the town center are the police station, city hall, two churches, and a women’s club. On the other side of the railroad tracks that bisect the town are shops and restaurants, and a coffee shop operating out of a bright red bus.
But in a state where 60 percent of the population is white, the aisles of the Thriftown supermarket are stocked with food items native to countries in West Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. The shops have names like Refuge Coffee Co., Grace Oriental Market, Merhaba Shawarma, and Abyssinia Cafe Grocery. Some storefronts feature Arabic and Nepalese scripts. Just south of city limits is Compass Plaza, which shows up on Google Maps as “Somali Plaza” and is referred to locally as “Little Dubai,” with about a dozen businesses, mostly Somali-owned, including an ethnic grocery store, halal restaurants, and retailers that sell abayas, hijabs, and traditional garb.
Sometimes dubbed the “Ellis Island of the South,” Clarkston has undergone substantial demographic changes over the last 25 years. In the early 1990s, it was chosen as a refugee resettlement site because of its proximity to Atlanta, affordable housing, and public transportation. It welcomed an estimated 1,500 refugees per year until Trump came to power, after which refugee resettlement dwindled nationwide. By some estimates, half of the city’s population is foreign-born. Clarkston was featured on a recent episode of “Queer Eye,” in which Mayor Ted Terry described its demographics in a short rap: “Clarkston / the most ethnically diverse / 40 nationalities / 60 languages / in just one square mile.” The town also received national attention during the 2016 presidential campaign as Republican candidates and elected officials across the country called for additional restrictions to the entry of refugees. The anti-refugee rhetoric was a threat not only to the city’s famed ethnic diversity, but also to its economy.
While federally contracted resettlement agencies helped refugees with their initial transition to life in Georgia, Clarkston residents have made herculean efforts to fill in the gaps and to ease the cultural shift for refugees. Women Watch Afrika, run by Glory Kilanko, a Nigerian immigrant herself, holds workshops on financial literacy, health and nutrition, and civic engagement. Omar Shekhey, who first came to the United States as a student, runs the Somali American Community Center as a volunteer; in the mid-1990s, he began to help Somali relatives who were immigrating to the United States and he formalized his efforts in 2008, running after-school programs and connecting newcomers in need of housing or other assistance with donors who could support them.
Anti-immigrant rhetoric has been simmering in Georgia since at least 2009, when state lawmakers passed a ban against so-called sanctuary cities. The law, which was one of the first of its kind in the country, made state funding conditional on local officials’ compliance with detention requests from ICE. But laws impacting individuals without proper immigration documents had little to no bearing on Clarkston’s refugee population, and immigration enforcement actions were something of an afterthought. Then came April 2017.
A Life of Uncertainty
Musa first arrived in the United States in the mid-1990s, fleeing from tribal violence in Somalia. He crossed the southern border and applied for asylum. His application was denied, and he appealed the decision. His case was heard at the immigration court in Atlanta by Judge William Cassidy, who has been on the bench since 1993. Cassidy and the other judges at the Atlanta Immigration Court are notorious for denying asylum claims at a disproportionate rate. Between 2012 and 2017, Cassidy denied 95.9 percent of asylum applications that came before him, a rejection rate only slightly higher than the 93.4 percent average at the Atlanta court overall. During that same time period, immigration judges nationwide denied, on average, 52.8 percent of asylum claims, according to an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research center at Syracuse University.
It was a confluence of factors that led to the denials of Somali applicants’ cases, Musa told me when I visited his family in August. “Translation and everything, all that plays a part for a judge to understand if you’re lying or you’re not lying,” he said. “That’s one thing which was a disadvantage with Somalis, because a lot of Somalis — our cases were very strong, we don’t mean to come up like we’re lying — but it’s just like the translator, and you’re being nervous, being scared, and a judge not knowing about a situation in your country, you know, because nobody’s been there.”
It was 1998 by the time Musa received his final order of deportation. But at the time, the United States was not deporting people to Somalia, due to the absence of a functioning government. The lack of diplomatic ties was a godsend to Musa and many others like him, allowing them to start families and build full lives in this country. In 2013, the United States recognized the government of Somalia for the first time in more than 20 years, and the Obama administration quietly resumed deportations to the still-fragile country. But it was serious criminals who were being sent back, and Musa didn’t have anything to worry about. In late 2014, Obama issued a new policy specifically prioritizing the deportation of criminals, immigrants who posed a threat to national security, and those who had recently entered the country. Again, Musa was relatively safe.
One of Trump’s first actions in office was to eliminate those priority categories, effectively rendering all 11 million immigrants without proper documents equal targets for deportation. During Trump’s first year, deportations, including of Somali nationals, surged, ICE records reveal. Even for Somali nationals, who were being deported in increasingly larger numbers during Obama’s final three years, there was a sizeable jump: 521 Somalis were removed from the United States during the 2017 fiscal year, compared to 198 the previous year.
It was amid those changes that ICE sought out the Somalis in Georgia’s DeKalb and Gwinnett counties — which include Clarkston and Duluth, respectively — in April 2017. Within a few days of Musa’s arrest, local news outlets had picked up reports from local advocacy groups decrying the raids that had occurred. Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesperson, disputed the use of the term “raids,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported at the time. “There is no special operation taking place in Clarkston,” Cox said.
But Cox’s words were no assurance to the families who’d just been separated.
Hussien Mohamed poses at the booth where he records for Sagal Radio on Aug. 4, 2018.
Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Intercept
A Strong Community
When Musa was arrested, he made three calls: to his wife, his lawyer, and his boss, in that order. His wife, who asked not to be named in this article, called an old family friend who was familiar with the ins and outs of Musa’s immigration status, Hussien Mohamed.
“As soon as I picked up the phone, she was crying. She made me cry, too. She wouldn’t put the word out,” Mohamed told me as we sat in the office of Sagal Radio, an ethnic community radio station he founded and runs. “Finally, she said, ‘Ibrahim was picked up by ICE,’ and she kept crying all the time.”
Back at home, the family struggled with its newfound reality. Iqran came home from school and found her mom crying. “I thought someone was dead or something; it didn’t cross my mind that he was getting deported,” Iqran said. “She told us, and it was kind of traumatic because it was like disbelief, because he would tell us about it, he’d be all like, ‘It’ll happen one day’ — well, he would tell me, but not my brothers — but I just didn’t know it was gonna happen so soon.”
A priority for the family was to keep Musa’s arrest a secret from Abdirhman, the youngest in the family. “He almost found out on the first day because he kept telling me, ‘What’s wrong with everybody?’ and everything, and I kept saying, ‘Nothing’s wrong,’” Khalid said. “He thought something was wrong with our grandma,” Iqran chimed in. For a while, the family told Abdirhman that his father was out of town — repeatedly pushing back his expected date of return — but within a few months, he figured it out. Musa made a point of speaking to his wife and kids every day, to maintain a sense of normalcy to the extent possible.
Meanwhile, Mohamed, who has lived in Clarkston for more than 30 years, mobilized in service of both the Musa family — he helped with legal fees, he said — and the broader community. On Sagal Radio, he invited lawyers, law enforcement, and elected officials to speak, hoping that facilitating informed discussions about immigration policy would allow people to grapple with what they’d just experienced.
Within a few weeks, Women Watch Afrika and other local immigrant advocacy groups appeared before the Clarkston City Council to request the passage of a non-detainer resolution, which would limit the city’s cooperation with federal immigration officers. On May 2, the council voted unanimously to pass the resolution, though Council Member Jamie Carroll noted at the time that ICE had never asked the city to detain anyone — nor could it, since Clarkston does not have a jail.
Still, the city got some flak from “people who think we are becoming a sanctuary city, which is already against the law in Georgia,” Council Member Awet Eyasu told me when we met at Kathmandu Kitchen & Grill, a South Asian restaurant in the Clarkston Village Plaza. Under the non-detainer policy, the city returned “to the principles of the Constitution, which says you got to have probable cause and it’s got to be issued by a judge,” explained Eyasu, who immigrated from Eritrea in 2000.
The mood following the arrests was “pretty somber and sad,” said Eyasu, but things have quieted down. Still, “the conversation is definitely not over — people want to make sure there’s not going to be such a thing,” he noted. “But the community has been strong. We’re just moving on. I’m pretty sure that’s what immigrants do.”
I first arrived in Clarkston on a Saturday in late July, just days before the start of the school year. Hundreds of parents, children, and volunteers swarmed around a paved lot behind the Clarkston International Bible Church, which had partnered with other churches and a refugee resettlement agency to host a back-to-school event. Parishioners distributed backpacks and other supplies to immigrant families. Next door, at the Clarkston United Methodist Church, people were milling about as a monthly food pantry gave out supplies to families in need.
I found Kilanko, of Women Watch Afrika, in a room at the back of the Methodist Church, fiddling with a projector she was trying to connect to her laptop ahead of a biweekly health and civic engagement class that her group hosts for women. On the off weeks, the group hosts a similar class for men. As we were talking, Preye Cobham, an attorney with Women Watch Afrika who was slated to teach that week’s class, walked into the room. “Oh, wow,” Kilanko said, laughing, as soon as she saw her colleague. Cobham was wearing the same black T-shirt as Kilanko, with a quote from famed civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
It was nearly 10:30 a.m. by the time the class got started. About 10 women from Eritrea, Liberia, Somalia, and Sudan showed up that day. The focus for the week was healthy eating and exercise. The attendees completed an assignment that asked questions about the foods they’d consumed over the last week, and whether they took walks or climbed the stairs.
Cobham asked the women whether they had attended a “know your rights” session for immigrants that the organization had hosted the previous week. Five women raised their hands, and Cobham asked them to share what they had learned with the rest of the class. “If immigration comes to my house without a warrant, I don’t have to let them in,” one woman chimed in. “Yes,” Cobham said, “and if they have a warrant, it must be signed by a judge — otherwise, it’s just a request.”
The health class was conceived more than 10 years ago, Kilanko told me, because her group noticed a trend of obesity and other health problems among refugees, who were not used to the sedentary lifestyle and fast-food offerings of the United States. The class serves a very specific function, but the inclusion of the “know your rights” portion in that week’s session reflects how interconnected wellness issues are to the survival of black immigrants in this country. Women Watch Afrika wants the women it serves to eat well, have a robust social life, and learn U.S. history. But to a black immigrant who finds herself or her family member in the hands of overzealous law enforcement officers, those lessons can go only so far.
Omar Shekhey, executive director of the Somali American Community Center.
Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Intercept
Later that day, I caught up with Shekhey, of the Somali American Community Center, at Refuge Coffee Co., which executes its mission of making Clarkston welcoming in part by employing refugees. He was sitting outside, wrapping up a meeting with Roberta Malavenda, the executive director of the Clarkston Development Foundation. They were exploring ways to obtain funding for Shekhey’s volunteer-run organization, which had been forced to shut down its after-school program due to a funding drought.
At 59, Shekhey is jovial, his dark eyes almost twinkling as he speaks. He is soft-spoken and calm, but he speaks with a sense of urgency, constantly motioning with his hands. He came to the United States as a student and graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1992, with a degree in mechanical engineering. Afterward, he worked at BellSouth, an Atlanta-based telecommunications company. He was laid off after the company merged with AT&T in late 2006 and decided to work with refugees and immigrants. Now, he drives a taxi to pay the bills, and otherwise acts like a fixer of sorts for Somali and other immigrants who find themselves in Clarkston.
In 2009, Shekhey officially launched the Somali American Community Center, which works to fill in the gaps left by refugee resettlement organizations. “We were trying to supplement the things resettlement [agencies] can’t do, such as culture, language barriers, and also issues that they might not be able to go see resettlement for, like burial help, Islamic burial help.” The dramatic reduction in refugee resettlement under the Trump administration has caused funding for groups that work with refugee communities to dry up, Shekhey said, but their advocacy work has continued, and has perhaps become more important than ever.
“The main disaster came when ICE came into Clarkston and just rounded everybody,” he said. “They pick nine of our family … members of our families … and since then we have been fighting, working, educating people.”
He has a keen grasp of immigration law, giving examples of people whose misdemeanor convictions made them ineligible for citizenship and referencing the Trump administration’s June decision to overturn asylum protections for survivors of gang or domestic violence. (On Wednesday, a federal judge struck down those policy changes.)
“The law has changed completely, and it’s interpreted differently, and ICE is aggressive now,” he said. “They frightened everybody. Are we talking about an army coming in? Not just ICE themselves, but they bring machine guns. They bring their armors. I mean, it’s like a war zone.”
Since April 2017, city residents have held more than 30 town halls to talk about immigration-related issues, Shekhey said. Advocacy groups — including Women Watch Afrika and the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR — have held “know your rights” seminars at mosques, churches, and community centers in Clarkston and the broader metropolitan area.
CAIR Georgia’s “know your rights” workshops are particularly important in immigrant communities like Clarkston, said Executive Director Edward Mitchell, a fast-talking former prosecutor who peppers his speech with refrains like “alhamdulillah” and “Allah knows best.” That’s because some members of the community have concerns “that if they stand up for their rights, if they speak up, it’s going to just to draw more attention to them in a way that’s going to hurt them or their family or endanger their immigration status,” Mitchell told me during our meeting at the Islamic Community Center of Atlanta.
“When I speak to them,” Mitchell said, referring to Clarkston Muslims, “even if the presentation is not focused on immigration, I get a lot of questions about immigration, because that’s obviously the most concern to the community there.”
Clarkston Plaza is one of a number of shopping centers in Clarkston, Ga., that feature ethnic grocery stores and restaurants.
Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Intercept
Marginalized and Targeted
Amid a virulently anti-immigrant political culture, black immigrants face unique challenges compared to the broader immigrant population.
In an undocumented immigrant population of about 11 million, black immigrants, one of the fastest growing demographics in the United States, are less likely to be in the country without legal authorization than non-black immigrants, according to an analysis of Pew Research Center data by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, or BAJI. Still, “due to racial discrimination, over-policing of Black communities, and invisibility within the public consciousness, Black immigrants face egregious conditions in the U.S., particularly within our nation’s immigration enforcement system,” a recent report by BAJI, titled “The State of Black Immigrants,” reads.
BAJI’s key findings, which are based on an analysis of Department of Homeland Security data and other open-source resources, demonstrate that the well-documented racial discrimination that exists within the criminal justice system also informs immigration enforcement. While blacks comprise just 5.4 percent of the unauthorized population in the United States, more than 20 percent of non-citizens facing deportation on criminal grounds are black. Black immigrants are also more likely to be detained for criminal convictions than the overall immigrant population, and they are much more likely to be deported based on a criminal conviction than nationals of other regions.
The BAJI report traces the disparities facing black immigrants back to Obama-era policies that emphasized a “good immigrant, bad immigrant” dichotomy by prioritizing the deportations of “felons, not families” — as if individuals with criminal convictions don’t have families of their own. But those same conditions have intensified in Trump’s America, where immigration policy is being shaped by white nationalists like White House adviser Stephen Miller, and where the president himself referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole” countries.
For Isra Ibrahim, a senior at Florida International University in Miami who is involved with BAJI, talking about the shared experiences of marginalized communities impacted by state violence is a necessary step toward ending that violence. “If people can see that immigration is the Muslim ban, it’s ending family separation, it’s ending police brutality at prisons,” she said, “then you can see that these issues unite, and we can kind of just come together, collect our thoughts, and strategize what’s the best next steps to counteract state violence that affects all of us.”
Ibrahim, the daughter of Sudanese immigrants, started organizing around immigration policy after hearing about the Somali deportees whose failed flight returned to the United States last December. When she learned that those detainees, most of them Muslims like herself, were being held at the Krome Detention Center, she reached out to their lawyers to see what she could do to help. She co-founded a group called Solidarity Actions for Detained Somalis, which collaborated with BAJI and the Muslim American Society of South Florida to organize a protest outside of the Miami facility.
That’s where she learned about Ibrahim Musa’s ordeal.
A Nightmare Flight
In late November or early December of last year, Musa was transferred from Ocilla to a detention center in Louisiana, in anticipation of a flight to Somalia on December 7. He didn’t have much of a plan for going back to the place he once called home, where his one-time fear of tribal violence had been replaced by a fear of al-Shabaab, the militant group that has targeted Somalis in the diaspora in a number of attacks. “My goal was to get us together as fast as I can,” Musa told me, referring to his family, “and, you know, whether it’s go to another country and bring them there, or see whatever options I’ve got.”
Over the last eight months, Musa had gotten somewhat used to the experience of being restrained by handcuffs. “The only time you’re not shackled is when you’re in jail,” he told me, explaining that chains were used to bind immigration detainees whenever they were transferred or taken to a medical facility. But when he and dozens of other Somali natives were shackled around their wrists, waists, and legs on the night of December 6, they were about to experience something radically different.
Once they were shackled, they were taken to the Alexandria International Airport in central Louisiana, about a 1 1/2-hour drive from the detention center where they were being held, Musa recalled. There, a large aircraft he identified as a Boeing 767 was awaiting them. It was about 2 a.m., and they were seated in what would typically be considered the coach class, where they had small TV screens and could watch movies and listen to music, Musa said. After about 10 hours, the plane landed in Dakar, Senegal.
“They said it was going to be 15 minutes, then we’ll go to Djibouti, and then Somalia,” Musa said. “When the plane just sat there, commotion was going on. People were tired from sitting down after a flight from Louisiana to Senegal. Everyone was trying to go to the bathroom, asking, ‘Can we standing up a little? Can we go outside and stretch our legs?’ They said, ‘No, no one’s going out.’”
As the passengers grew restless, Musa asked an ICE officer what was going on, and the officer told him there was a problem with the ventilation. Someone would be flying back to the U.S. to retrieve a part to fix the airplane and would be returning, what Musa estimated to be a 16-hour trip. Soon, he and a few other passengers who were sitting quietly were moved to a different part of the airplane, away from the commotion that was about to unfold. “They took me and the guys beside me, and they put us on the second class so that we could not see what was going on at the back of us. We were all in the third class, so they started shifting people to the second class,” he said. “They picked the people who they were like, ‘Oh, these guys are quiet,’ so there were like 13 of us or 14 of us, they brought us up front.”
According to a class-action lawsuit filed by the Somali detainees against ICE, they experienced “inhumane conditions and egregious abuse” on the flight, where they remained in shackles for 48 hours. “When the plane’s toilets overfilled with human waste, some of the detainees were left to urinate into bottles or on themselves,” states the lawsuit, which was filed in December by a team of lawyers from the Immigration Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law, 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. “ICE agents wrapped some who protested, or just stood up to ask a question, in full-body restraints,” according to the suit. “ICE agents kicked, struck, or dragged detainees down the aisle of the plane, and subjected some to verbal abuse and threats.” ICE has denied the allegations.
From his vantage point, Musa did not witness this abuse. But after what he said was 15 or 20 hours of waiting on the Senegal runway, an ICE official came and said there was good news — the plane was fixed — and bad news — they would be flying back to the United States.
“It was a mixed emotion,” Musa said, describing the uncertainty he felt after having surrendered himself to the reality that he would be going to Somalia. “One thing that you have to understand is, in terms of ICE, they have a lot of power to do anything, so you don’t know what’s going to be the next step. Even though they say the plane is coming back — OK it’s coming back, are we gonna be deported the next day? Or are we going to be put up somewhere and put in detention? For how long?”
Another thought he had was whether he might be reunited with his family. “That’s one thing that I don’t know if it’s going to happen, it’s good to be true, because I’d been in detention in Atlanta for six months,” he said. “You have hope, but you don’t know where it’s going to come from. You keep the hope there, and you just pray, and just take one day at a time.”
Illustration: Katherine Lam for The Intercept
A Second Chance
When I first spoke to Iqran, Ibrahim Musa’s then 19-year-old daughter, in May, her father was behind bars at Krome, where he’d been detained since being brought back to the U.S. in December. She told me that his arrest had caused fundamental changes in their lives. “It’s been hard on us financially, emotionally,” she said. “It took a toll on all of us. My mother had to take a job, to become both mother and father.” Iqran, too, got a job to pitch in, though her and her mother’s combined income was still not enough to make up for the lack of her father’s paycheck. She graduated from high school the month after her father’s arrest; his absence created a gaping hole in the festivities. She had been planning to attend Georgia State University, but with the family’s finances strained, she instead enrolled at Georgia Gwinnett College, a two-year school. With Iqran and her mother working, Khalid had to quit his high school basketball team, so that he could take care of his younger brothers after school.
Throughout his detention, Musa spoke to his family every day — several times a day, in fact. But he never wanted his children to visit him, to see him behind bars. “I didn’t want them to experience that atmosphere,” he said, to “come into jail and see your dad’s been locked up for nothing.”
That changed in April, about a year after Musa’s arrest. His lawyers invited Iqran and Khalid to Miami to speak at the protest that Isra Ibrahim had organized outside of Krome. They used the opportunity to visit their father. “It was not how I expected it to be; I thought it was going to be much worse,” Iqran told me, looking back on that day. “It was surreal to see the whole cage. We were talking on the phone and everything, and it was such a weird feeling just because you never … I never expected my father to be in that situation.”J
In early July, Musa’s situation changed. His lawyers at the University of Miami School of Law’s immigration clinic won a motion to reopen his case, allowing him to file a new claim of asylum at the Miami Immigration Court. Musa was granted release, pending the disposition of those proceedings, and he returned home to Georgia.
By the time I visited the family in August, Musa had been home for almost a month. He was dressed casually, in a red Lacoste T-shirt and black Adidas sweatpants, sitting on one end of an L-shaped, off-white leather couch. On the wall above him hung a piece of art that read, “In this home we do …” — followed by a series of words like forgiveness, prayer, and honesty — “… really well.”
Throughout our conversations, Musa returned repeatedly to his faith. His ordeal — being separated from his family, being locked up even though he had not committed a crime, and endless uncertainty — served as a humbling reminder that a higher power is in control of his fate. “You know, it’s just the belief that you have that you don’t have no control of everything, so, you know, that’s what keeps us going, just prayers” he said. “I pray a lot, you know, and thank God I’ve got kids who understand.”
In September, Musa appeared before the immigration court in Miami for a procedural hearing. Another hearing will be held in February, and it will likely be many months before Musa’s individual hearing, at which he and his lawyer will be able to make his case for asylum. He is still waiting for the work permit he applied for when he was released from detention.
Until then, he said, they wait. “Everything lies in God’s hands.”
Correction: December 22, 2018, 6:50 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article identified Edward Mitchell as a former public defender. He is a former prosecutor.