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Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center and pro bono attorneys at the Milwaukee law firm Quarles & Brady LLP have filed a lawsuit seeking release of an Eritrean asylum seeker who has been detained in Wisconsin and Illinois since he arrived in the country in February.

Samere Abraha fled Eritrea to escape imprisonment and torture he suffered in retaliation for refusing to sanction the arrests of democratic reform activists. When he arrived at O’Hare International Airport and asked for asylum in February, he was arrested and detained by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Mr. Abraha has been detained in three different jails since his arrival and is currently held at the Kenosha County Detention Center in Wisconsin. He is detained awaiting a hearing on June 30, 2009, before an immigration judge who will decide whether to grant him asylum.

“I thought that when I came to the United States they would ask me about why I had come and about why I needed asylum,” said Mr. Abraha through an interpreter. “I expected I’d be detained for a short while as they verified my story. I did not expect to be in jail for four months like a criminal.”

Under current law, the decision to detain an asylum seeker who requests asylum upon arrival in the U.S. is subject to the discretion of the same ICE officials whose job it is to arrest them when they arrive at the airport or other port of entry. Not even the immigration judge who will ultimately decide on Mr. Abraha’s asylum application can order his release in the meantime.

Mr. Abraha has sought release three times without success. Family members in Illinois and Minnesota said they will provide him shelter and support when he is released. Yet ICE insists on detaining Mr. Abraha indefinitely, ostensibly because it is investigating the man who helped arrange Mr. Abraha’s travel to the U.S. In his four months of detention, ICE has yet to speak to Mr. Abraha about his entry.

“The indefinite detention of an asylum seeker violates due process and the basic principles of American jurisprudence,” said Andrew Frank of Quarles & Brady LLP, Mr. Abraha’s pro bono attorney.

Mr. Abraha, who speaks Tigrinya, said he has struggled to communicate with jail staff and other detainees during his months in detention and suffers from depression and isolation.

“Even the best system requires checks and balances, like giving immigration judges the right to review detention decisions.” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director, Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center. “We will continue to advocate for Mr. Abraha and others like him until our country’s broken immigration detention system comes into line with basic standards of justice and human rights.

The habeas petition, Abraha v. Preston et al., was filed today in the District Court of the Eastern District of Wisconsin.


Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center is a Chicago-based nongovernmental organization dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers through a unique combination of direct services, policy reform, impact litigation and public education. For more information visit