By Sonia Moghe, CNN
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New York (CNN)As more than 100 detained Iraqi nationals wait to see if they will be released after many have been held for nearly 18 months, recently unsealed documents raise new questions about Iraq’s desire or ability to accept those detainees against their will.
The American Civil Liberties Union is representing Iraqi nationals who have final orders of deportation. More than 300 have been detained since May 2017, the group says, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement started targeting undocumented Iraqi immigrants with final deportation orders.
Many fear for their safety, the ACLU says, if they are returned to Iraq, a country that some have not lived in for decades. Some are Chaldean Christians or members of oppressed Muslim sects and fear being persecuted, tortured or killed if returned.
About 110 of those Iraqi nationals remain in ICE custody in 33 facilities nationwide.
Iraq’s willingness to take in deported nationals has been the basis of the US government’s argument to keep them detained until their immigration cases are decided. But recently unsealed documents, including memos and emails from US officials and a letter from an Iraqi official, show that Iraq has hesitated to allow the “forced return” of Iraqi nationals.
Iraqi officials re-emphasized to CNN on Friday their unwillingness to take in Iraqis who have been forcibly removed.
Ahmed Mahjoub, a spokesman for the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, told CNN the government encourages Iraqi nationals’ return “…if they are willing to come to their homeland and are ready to facilitate it through our diplomatic missions, but, again, we won’t cooperate with any government trying to forcibly return them.”
ACLU attorney Miriam Aukerman hopes the documents will encourage US District Judge Mark Goldsmith in Detroit to consider allowing those who have remained in detention the chance to be released so that they can be with their families while their cases move forward.
“These individuals have lost all of 2018 based on misrepresentations to the court by ICE,” Aukerman said. “The judge cannot give them back the months and months that they’ve been behind bars … but the judge can let them go and let them return to their families. It prevents the injustice from continuing.”
The Justice Department did not respond to questions about the case. Due to ongoing litigation, ICE had no comment, an agency spokesperson said.
About 1,400 Iraqi nationals living in the US as of Thursday have had final orders of removal and could be affected by the outcome of this case, ACLU said.
Back and forth with Iraq
ICE began detaining Iraqi nationals with deportation orders around May 15, 2017, according to court documents.
During the nearly 18 months that this case has been underway, the government has given repeated assurances that Iraq would be willing to accept these detainees.
In the past few months, Goldsmith ordered many of the documents with information about correspondence between the US and Iraq unsealed, showing the behind-the-scenes struggles US officials have faced in trying to deport the detained Iraqis and what they said publicly.