The Somali man who was detained Thursday in Portland by federal immigration officials has a long record of misdemeanor offenses, a criminal background check shows.
Abdi Ali, 28, of Westbrook was first charged with a crime in Maine in 2009. 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.
Ali was at the Cumberland County Courthouse on Thursday for a hearing on a misdemeanor drunken-driving charge, which is usually not considered a deportable offense for immigrants. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers detained Ali while he was meeting with his court-appointed attorney, Tina Nadeau, after the hearing.
During his campaign and his first months in office, President Trump has promised to ramp up immigration enforcement. Attorneys and state officials believe Ali’s arrest is the first such detention in Maine under the new administration.
Ali, who is originally from Somalia, had told Nadeau he is an asylum seeker. It is unclear how long he has lived in the United States, and his immigration status cannot be confirmed.
“I will confirm ICE detained an individual with a history of arrest/convictions and that the subject is in our custody pending removal procedures,” spokesman Alvin Phillips wrote in an email. “We have no further comments at this time.”
Ali was charged with driving drunk on Feb. 28 after he was pulled over on Forest Avenue for having a light out on his vehicle. Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Friday that his department did not have any discussions about Ali with ICE.
“The Portland Police Department was unaware federal officials were investigating or had plans to arrest Mr. Ali,” Sauschuck said in a press release.
“We work very hard to build trust between the Police Department and all immigrant communities,” the chief said. “It is imperative that all the residents of our city are able to seek assistance from the police, and also provide us with the help we need to solve crimes and continue to make Portland a safe city. We know that cannot truly happen if they are in fear of the police.”
Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce issued a statement Friday night noting that his office was not involved in Ali’s detention, even though Ali was taken to the county jail.
“Our deputies do not enforce immigration laws,” Joyce said in the statement. “Our mission and sworn duty is to enforce Maine state laws.”
Jail officials said Friday that Ali does not want to speak with the media. Neighbors of his last known address, in Westbrook, said the house has been vacant for some time. A woman who answered the door at his last known address in Portland said she has lived in the apartment for one month and does not know Ali.
Deqa Dhalac, a leader from the Somali Community Center of Maine, also does not know Ali. But his case has set off a flurry of phone calls and messages from fearful immigrants, she said.
“It is scary,” Dhalac said. “Even people who are green card holders are calling us.”
The answers aren’t always easy to find. It is not always clear what type of offense can result in deportation, and immigrants with permanent resident status have more protection than asylum seekers or those with temporary status.
The practice of detaining people at a courthouse is controversial. It is an ICE policy to avoid detentions in “sensitive locations” like churches or schools, but that list does not include courthouses. Many asylum seekers flee their home countries because of government persecution or violence, and they often struggle to trust law enforcement in the United States. Dhalac said she is worried Ali’s arrest will make them fearful of the courts as well.
“This is also jeopardy for people to go to court if they have a minor ticket or eviction notices,” Dhalac said. “They might think twice. They might say, if I go, am I going to get arrested for it? Am I going to have problems with that? It’s our job with the community to let them know you have to do those things.”
Sue Roche, the executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, echoed that concern. For example, she said domestic violence victims might hesitate to seek protective orders at the court, or an innocent defendant might plead guilty to avoid a trial.
“There is a general fear in the community,” Roche said. “We are just extremely concerned not only about the impact on the community and the fear in the community, but on the ability of the court system to function and for people to access justice.”
About 12,500 immigrants from seven east African countries, including Somalia, now live in the state, according to the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine. On the same day Ali was arrested, the Somali community in Lewiston was meeting with Stephen Schwartz, the United States’ first ambassador to Somalia in 25 years.
Dhalac said the meeting with Schwartz gave the Somali community hope for good relationships with government officials.
“Then this happened,” she said. “And everything went to fear again.”