Local Somali activist arrested on charges of immigration fraud

Elizabeth Dunbar

One of the Twin Cities’ most outspoken Somali advocates was still in jail Tuesday afternoon on charges of immigration fraud.

Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, was arrested Monday and is being held on $10,000 bail.

Immigration advocates have criticized the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, accusing agents of targeting Jamal because of his active role in criticizing law enforcement officials’ treatment of immigrants.

But immigration bureau spokesman Tim Counts said the charges have nothing to do with Jamal’s role in the community.

“The reason Mr. Jamal is in the situation he is now is because he committed fraud,” Counts said. “He’s certainly been critical of the government, but free speech is protected by the First Amendment and we fully support that right.”

Counts said Minnesota’s immigration bureau started the investigation more than one year ago.

After building a case against Jamal, Counts said, officials presented evidence to the U.S. attorney in Memphis, Tenn., where he allegedly filed false immigration documents.

The U.S. District Court in Memphis issued a warrant for Jamal’s arrest to Minnesota immigration officials, Counts said.

David Miller, a volunteer at the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, said he is skeptical about the investigation’s time frame.

“I think it’s impossible to not see it in the light of there being political motivations for this,” he said.

Miller said the start of the investigation could have coincided with Jamal’s criticism of Minneapolis police for shooting a Somali man in March 2002.

“That’s when he began to be seen as a fairly vocal critic of police policies,” Miller said.

Counts said civil immigration fraud charges are common, but the Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement does not always present investigations to the U.S. attorney for criminal charges.

“If we think the charges are serious enough, we present the case to the U.S. attorney,” Counts said, adding that decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

“Sometimes we don’t have enough evidence to convict people on criminal charges,” he said. “It’s certainly a common occurrence to present fraud cases to the U.S. attorney for prosecution.”

Though Counts said he could not comment on how immigration officials found out about Jamal’s alleged falsification of documents, he said “information came from a number of places.”

If convicted, Jamal could face serious consequences, Counts said.

“Based on the investigation that’s developed, we firmly believe he’s committed fraud,” he said. “The result of that would be removal.”

Osman Sahardeed, assistant executive director of the Somali Community of Minnesota, said he was not speculating on the motives for Jamal’s arrest.

“We’re waiting for the facts,” he said. “He has been one of the most active Somalis in this community, and everyone worries about his well-being.”

A hearing to reduce Jamal’s bail is scheduled for later this week. Counts said civil immigration and federal criminal proceedings will be held at the same time.

Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]