Iraqi detainees targeted for deportation ordered released

Detroit — A federal judge ordered the release Tuesday of roughly 100 Iraqi detainees held for more than 16 months, saying the federal government cannot indefinitely detain foreign nationals.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Goldsmith granted two motions filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan in 2017: release of the detainees and sanctioning of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for "demonstrably false statements to the court designed to delay the proceedings."

Sam Hamama helps Anette Reese with grandchildren Popo, 3 and Kayla, 3 looking for an item while working at Family Foods Market in Harper Woods on Tuesday. The case, Hamama vs. Adducci, sought to end the detention of some 1,400 Iraqis nationally, including 114 initially from Metro Detroit, who had been rounded up by the federal government for deportation in June 2017.

"The law is clear that the federal government cannot indefinitely detain foreign nationals while it seeks to repatriate them when there is no significant likelihood of repatriation in the reasonably foreseeable future," Goldsmith said in an opinion released Tuesday.

The case, Hamama vs. Adducci, sought to end the detention of some 1,400 Iraqis nationally, including 114 initially from Metro Detroit, who had been rounded up by the federal government for deportation in June 2017.

The raid followed President Donald Trump's executive order barring admission into the United States of nationals from seven countries, including Iraq. In March, Iraq was dropped from the list when a new policy was negotiated between Iraq and the United States.

The ACLU had argued that if the detainees were repatriated to Iraq, they would face torture or death for their Christian faith and some for having served in the U.S. military.

Usama “Sam” Hamama of West Bloomfield, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, was among Iraqi nationals detained by ICE agents in the raids. 

"This is the most amazing news, but there is still an empty feeling in my heart," said Hamama, 56, who was released in February from a detention center in St. Clair County after posting a $100,000 bond. Hamama came to the country when he was 11 and had not returned to Iraq.

"They took eight months away from me. I’ll never get that back. Even though I was out, I kept in touch with other suffering families and tired to keep their spirits up. We're so thankful to God and the ACLU."

Goldsmith ordered the detainees released within 30 days, acknowledging even in release they will likely face hardships.

"... They have been deprived of more than a year of their lives with their families and their communities," Goldsmith said in his ruling. "Additionally, it is doubtful any of them have their old jobs or businesses waiting for them after this long period of time. Even after their release ... (they) will have to start over to regain some measure of economic stability."

The senior ACLU attorney in the case, Miriam Aukerman, said the timing of the ruling meant detainees could be home for at least one holiday this year.

"Families will miss Thanksgiving, but be back with their families in time for Christmas," said Aukerman. "We don’t lock people up and throw away the key for no reason. They've already lost 2017, but we're glad they'll be starting 2019 with their families."

'Bad faith' leads to sanctions 

In October, the ACLU filed a petition for the full release and called for sanctions against ICE for repeated delays in providing documents to the court. The government's document review "has moved at a glacial pace," Goldsmith said, citing an "endless cycle of potential removals, but with dubious results."

"The weight of the evidence actually uncovered during discovery shows that Iraq will not take back individuals who will not voluntarily agree to return," Goldsmith said. "This means that the Iraqi detainees could remain locked up indefinitely — many in local jails — whether their challenges to their orders of removal are exhausted or ongoing."

Goldsmith, citing Zadvydas v. Davis, the 2001 Supreme Court ruling that blocked indefinite detention of immigrants, determined that the detainees face "irreparable harm" if they are not released.

Aukerman said most detainees had overstayed their visa or committed crimes, had served their time and had been under the supervision of ICE officials before they were picked up in the raids.

"What the judge said (is) it’s a decision about accountability and you can’t lie to a federal judge and get away with it," Aukerman said. "They were unjustly arrested and taken into custody for removal, not because of anything they did, but (because of) changes in administration."

The court issued a preliminary injunction in July 2017 to allow detainees to remain in the country; a second injunction was issued in January, holding that those "subject to prolonged detention are entitled to a bond hearing ... unless the government proffered individualized evidence that a detainee should not receive a hearing." 

The ACLU has accused ICE officers of telling detainees to sign documents saying they want to be sent back to Iraq instead of facing prosecution in the United States. More than 30 unwillingly signed, Aukerman said.

ICE officials said they are reviewing the judge’s order and will determine the appropriate next steps, pending decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on related appeals filed by the government on two previous preliminary injunctions ordered by the court.

Goldsmith was forceful about the government's handling of the cases. "The government appears befuddled by the entire discovery process and cannot proceed without the court’s constant intervention instructing the government on the steps necessary to meet its obligations under the federal rules. The government’s attorneys are quite capable, which leads the court to the conclusion that the government’s conduct is of its own making and demonstrates clear bad faith."  

Those delays, Goldsmith noted, have had serious consequences, keeping some detainees from hearings and their families for more than a year. 

"It is appalling that ICE lied to the court, and even more appalling that it did so in order to keep people wrongfully incarcerated," said Margo Schlanger, attorney for the ACLU and University of Michigan law professor.

Some detainees are being held at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. It's unclear how many detainees from Michigan are being held at the Northeast Ohio Correction Center, which housed the majority of those swept up in the raids. 

The raids weren't the first to remove Iraqis from the United States. In 2014, 163 people from Iraq were removed, according to the Department of Justice in 2017. There have been 325 Iraqis removed since 2010.

Of the detainees, 20 removal orders were prior to 2000, 196 after 2000, 84 of them are 2010 to present.

After returning home

Hamama said he was thankful to have his job back after he was released.

"I'm at home and I'm thankful my co-manager, Bassam Konja, kept my position at Family Food Market intact," he said. "He brought my paycheck home to my wife and kept my family together because I was there and he was here."

He said he flashbacks to the day of his arrest. 

"But I'm still in a hysteria at 8 a.m. on Sundays ... in the back of my mind it could happen again," Hamama said. "I have a good support system, but this hurt them just as much."

Hamama has four children, ages 13 to 21, and said the detention will remain a painful memory for them.

"I missed my son's prom, birthdays and Christmas last year," he said. "Normally on Christmas, I wake each one of them up, make hot chocolate and force them to wait to open presents. Last Christmas, they wouldn't open presents until I called. There's nothing like being home with your family, and this Christmas, we know the true meaning of faith."

Warda Slewo, center, sits with family and friends Friday at his Madison Heights home after spending nine months in an Ohio correctional facility.

Ashourina Slewo's father was released in March from the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center but continued to call for others' release.

"He still doesn’t completely believe he is home," said Slewo, of Madison Heights. "He even had his first hearing last week and he just seems lost. Like he can’t believe we’ve made it this far. He’s worried when he checks in, what’s to stop ICE from picking him up again this time.

"CODE and the ACLU went up against the Trump administration and won," she added. "It’s monumental. This time last year, I thought our community was done for. We won… Words don’t do this fight justice."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_