Abdi Ali says he never realized he wasn’t an American citizen. He came to the United States from Somalia as a child more than two decades ago. He speaks little of any language other than English. He graduated from Deering High School in Portland in 2008.
So when U.S. Immigrant and Customs Enforcement officials arrested the 28-year-old Westbrook man last week at a Portland courthouse, he thought it was a mistake.
“I think they’ve got the wrong person,” Ali said in an interview with the Portland Press Herald. “I think this is a bad dream still. I can’t even believe this is happening to me. Out of everybody, why me?”
Ali was arrested April 6 at Cumberland County Superior Court after a hearing on a misdemeanor drunken-driving charge, which is not typically considered a deportable offense. Three U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers detained him as he was meeting with a court-appointed attorney in a conference room. They gave him a document that states he is subject to removal from the United States because of a 2013 misdemeanor conviction for cocaine possession and brought him to the Cumberland County Jail. The arrest is believed to be the first such detention in Maine since President Trump announced he would ramp up immigration enforcement.
Since then, Ali has been waiting in fear and confusion.
“I’ve been here for over 21 years,” Ali said. “I don’t know anything about my country. If I go back to my country, I’ll probably get ransomed and killed.”
Ali was just 7 years old when he arrived in the United States.
The document from ICE states he entered the country as a refugee through New York City in June 1996, and he was upgraded to lawful permanent resident status in 1997. Ali said he knows his family fled war in Somalia, but he doesn’t remember anything about Africa or speak the language of his home country. His childhood memories are attending school and playing basketball in Maine.
“I remember learning English like the other kids could,” he said. “ABCs. I came here at the perfect age. If I came here as an adult, I could have answered more questions for you about my country. But what can I do? All I know is America.”
After running away from home at age 17, Ali said he got caught up in drugs and crime.
“I was on the street by myself,” he said of his teenage years. “I was really going through a hard time in my life.”
His criminal history includes two convictions for assault in 2010, along with a host of petty crimes. He was twice charged with felonies – a robbery charge in 2009 and a charge of unlawful trafficking of a scheduled drug in 2013 – but he pleaded guilty to misdemeanors on both. A criminal background check showed he served five months in jail on the misdemeanor drug charge in 2013. Ali said he does not remember ever being told he could be deported for his convictions, and he doesn’t understand why that conviction from nearly four years ago is making him a target now.
“I did my time for it,” he said. “I’m not a bad guy. They try to make me look like a bad guy. … It’s not fair for me how I’m getting treated.”
In the last two years, Ali said, he has turned his life around. He has recently been working at a seafood processing plant, and he said he helps support his fiancee’s three young children. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
“I’m a hardworking man,” he said. “I work. I’ll take anything. I’m trying to pay the bills. I’m trying to support my girl.”
In the jail, Ali carried the document from ICE in the breast pocket of his orange jumpsuit. He met with the Immigration Legal Advocacy Project and hopes the organization will help him find an attorney. He has not received any further details about his case. An ICE spokesperson declined to provide an update Monday and did not return a request for comment Tuesday.
Sue Roche, executive director at ILAP, said a drug possession conviction can be grounds for deportation. Roche was one of 179 Maine attorneys who sent a letter Monday urging federal officials to end the practice of making immigration arrests in courthouses.
“What’s different in this case is the way they sought him out in the courthouse,” Roche said. “That’s supposed to be a safe place.”
The U.S. Supreme Court held in 2010 that an attorney must advise a criminal defendant of the deportation risk of a guilty plea, but Roche said it is not uncommon for that person to still be confused about his or her immigration status in the United States.
“Often, kids grow up here,” she said. “They feel like they are American citizens. This is all they know. All they know about Somalia is the danger that is there. It’s just shining a light on the many injustices of our immigration system.”
While he waits, Ali said, he just wants to go back to his normal life in Westbrook with his fiancee and her children. They would go to the beach, play video games, cook and eat together. He cried as he talked about them in the jail’s interview room.
“I miss home,” he said.