Iraqi detainees get reprieve from deportation

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Hundreds of Iraqi nationals facing deportation to Iraq could get their day in court after a federal judge on Monday issued a preliminary injunction against their removal from the U.S.

The ruling means that 1,400 Iraqi nationals, including more than 200 arrested and detained last month, will have more time to seek legal protection from being sent back to Iraq. Advocates say the detained Iraqis, many of them Christians, face persecution, torture and possibly death if forced to return to their native country, where Christians are a minority.

U.S. Federal Judge Mark Goldsmith issued the ruling on the same day a temporary stay was set to expire at 11:59 p.m.

In a 34-page opinion, Goldsmith said the government’s opposition to the preliminary injunction “ignores the compelling confluence of extraordinary circumstances.”

“Without warning, over 1,400 Iraqi nationals discovered that their removal orders — many of which had lain dormant for several years — were now to be immediately enforced, following an agreement reached between the United States and Iraq to facilitate removal,” Goldsmith wrote. “This abrupt change triggered a feverish search for legal assistance to assert rights against the removal of persons confronting the grisly fate petitioners face if deported to Iraq.

“That legal effort has, in turn, been significantly impeded by the Government’s successive transfers of many detainees across the country, separating them from their lawyers and the families and communities who can assist in those legal efforts.”

Goldsmith continued, saying that the federal district court is “armed with jurisdiction to act as a first responder to protect the writ of habeas corpus and the allied right to due process, by allowing an orderly filing for relief with the immigration courts before deportation, thereby assuring that those who might be subjected to grave harm and possible death are not cast out of this country before having their day in court.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is leading the legal effort to keep the Iraqis from being deported, praised Goldsmith’s decision.

“ICE does not dispute that Iraq is a dangerous place for our clients, however, at every turn, has insisted to deport our community members into danger, tear their families apart and deny their day in immigration court,” said Miriam Aukerman, a senior attorney for ACLU of Michigan. “We’re heartened that the court has once again recognized our country’s commitment to fundamental fairness.”

Khaalid Walls, an ICE spokesman, said the agency had no immediate comment on the ruling.

The decision comes weeks after the largest roundup in recent years of Iraqi nationals by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, followed by a widespread outcry.

Metro Detroit’s Chaldean community, the largest in the nation, shuddered after the arrests since most of the detained Iraqis were local — 114 — and Christian. Another 85 from Tennessee, New Mexico and California were arrested.

Most had either overstayed a visa or committed crimes, paid a penalty and were under the supervision of ICE officials.

Their status became an issue earlier this year when the federal government reached an agreement with Iraq to accept Iraqi nationals without travel documents. For years, Iraq had not accepted those without travel documents in an effort to secure its border against terrorists from groups such as the Islamic State.

Attorneys for the detainess filed motions last week arguing that many of the Iraqis had a legal basis for reopening their removal proceedings to seek relief.

The attorneys argued that the detainees needed more time to pursue legal remedies, since most of them were being held far from their homes in states such as Ohio, Louisiana and Arizona.

“Even under ordinary circumstances, it can take significant time for a family to retain a lawyer and for the lawyer to prove to an immigration judge that an immigrant faces persecution, torture or death if deported,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan. “In this case, where Iraqi nationals have been detained in facilities thousands of miles from their homes, and where many families cannot afford lawyers, it takes even more time.”

Immigration officials say those targeted in the raids committed crimes, some as serious as murder and rape, and have forfeited their right to remain in the U.S.

They also said in court documents filed last week that 79 Iraqi nationals filed motions in Detroit Immigration Court to reopen their cases and request stays.

Of the requests, immigration judges granted a stay of removal in 39 cases. The judges granted a reopening of four cases, but denied requests to reopen 33 cases. Three cases were outstanding as of last week.

“The Detroit Immigration Court has engaged in extensive efforts to timely adjudicate and rule on motions to reopen and stay motions in response to the influx of motions filed by detained Iraqi nationals,” according to court documents written by Sheila McNulty, an Illinois-based assistant chief immigration judge with oversight of six courts, including Detroit.