Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested an asylum seeker during his actual asylum interview in San Francisco last week—something his lawyer says is completely unprecedented.
Omer Abdelmaed was arrested last Thursday, moments after a two-hour asylum interview at the San Francisco branch of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office. There, he had been asked to recount why he fears returning to Sudan, according to his attorney, Caleb Arring. Arring told local station KTVU that Abdelmaed was opposed to the ruling political party in Sudan and would be persecuted if he returned there. He added that he has never seen anyone arrested at an asylum office in the five years he’s been handling asylum cases. This tracks with what other lawyers and experts have said about asylum office arrests.
“Our government is arresting asylum seekers who are asking for protection from harm, who have no criminal history, for absolutely no reason,” Arring said in a Facebook post on Thursday night.
The Trump administration has dramatically ramped up arrests of immigrants at sensitive locations agents previously stayed away from, such as courthouses. (In places like New York, courthouse arrests were up 900% last year.) Now, it appears asylum offices are not off-limits either.
In April last year, ICE officials also arrested a Venezuelan man seeking asylum at a USCIS office in Florida. The Venezuelan man was released soon after Senator Marco Rubio’s office intervened.
ICE spokesperson James Schwab confirmed to Splinter that Abdelmaed was taken into custody Thursday by ICE deportation officers. He said Abdelmaed had violated the terms of a temporary visa he was issued in 2014.
What’s concerning about that explanation is that many asylum seekers who entered eventually overstay their visa thanks to the years and years that the asylum process can take. USCIS currently has a backlog of 311,000 pending asylum cases, which means many asylum seekers wait years for an interview with an asylum officer. This backlog results in long waits and often means most applicants who applied for asylum when they had a valid visa end up with an expired visa during the application process.
Schwab also said, “Mr. Abdelmaed is wanted for criminal charges by law enforcement officials in the United Arab Emirates.” He did not specify what those charges were. I have asked both him and Carring to clarify this, and will update this post when I hear back.
Abdelmaed’s brother told KTVU that his brother had lived in the UAE, and had left a wife and child behind there, but that he was not aware of any criminal charges against him.
In the Facebook post, Arring said he suspects his client was taken into custody because he was born in Sudan, one of the original countries with large Muslim populations included in President Trump’s travel ban. ICE did not respond to requests for comment on whether the travel ban list has anything to do with Abdelmaed’s arrest.