Iraqi detainees from metro Detroit face obstacles in legal representation

  • Written by:

Leah Graham and Kaelyn Collins, Detroit Free Press Special Writers
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents reportedly arrested dozens of Chaldeans (Christian Iraqis) in a sweep across metro Detroit this weekend. Wochit
She drove several hours and crossed state lines. She received previous assurances. But when immigration attorney Ruby Kaur arrived at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, Ohio, in June to meet with her clients, two Iraqi nationals facing deportation, she was turned away with varying excuses.

More: Judge: Federal district court has jurisdiction in Iraqi immigrants case

Once, she said she was told, that a count of the ICE detainees was being conducted. Then she was told the detainees were in the process of being transferred to another part of the prison.

So she spent the night, and the next day it was more of the same. This time, she said she was told by the guard that they were short-staffed and couldn’t dispense the necessary personnel to enable a visit.

More: Judge extends stay for Iraqi immigrants detained by ICE

“Driving is passé,” Kaur, a lawyer at ALL LAW PLLC in Farmington, said. “It’s to Ohio, so it’s about four hours.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested 114 Iraqi nationals in Detroit on June 11, local attorneys have been scrambling to put cases together. U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith mentioned Kaur’s fruitless trip in a July 24 ruling temporarily halting the deportation of the detainees for 90 days to allow them to obtain proper legal counsel.

Goldsmith has scheduled a status conference for 2 p.m. today to discuss further court proceedings.

“When this all started, the government said that they were going to deport people as soon as just a few days after that,” attorney Margo Schlanger, a lawyer for the Iraqi detainees, said. “People needed time to find lawyers and file motions to reopen so that they could get their cases heard in immigration court. If they’d gotten deported after three or four days, they obviously wouldn’t have enough time.”

Still, nearly 40% of the detainees have no legal representation a month after being arrested. And Goldsmith estimates that 79% of detainees are being held in facilities outside of the state where their final orders of removal were issued.

Goldsmith’s ruling acknowledged the difficulty of bringing cases to immigration court on short notice, noting some detainees had been transferred between facilities numerous times, “separating them from their lawyers and the families and communities who can assist in those legal efforts.” At the status conference today, Goldsmith is to discuss whether modifications are needed in his July 24 order halting the deportation of Iraqi nationals to their homeland.

As of July 24, 234 Iraqi nationals are detained in 31 facilities across the country; the Detroit detainees are housed in Michigan, Ohio, Louisiana and Arizona.

Attorneys complained of limited phone access making it difficult to reach their clients.

At the Arizona facility, calls are capped at 15 minutes with a charge of $0.25 per minute. While the government said it provides daily phone access and that calls made to pro bono counsel, immigration courts, the ACLU and other institutions are free at the detention center, the detainees said they cannot contact the ACLU free of charge and that they have to pay for calls to private immigration attorneys who are working pro bono.

“The government is continuing to move them around in a way that is making it very difficult for them to get lawyers,” Schlanger said. “A confident lawyer in a immigration case needs to both talk to her client and to appear in immigration court. The immigration courts are back wherever the detainees are from and the detainees themselves are far away from there. The whole thing has gotten very complex to find lawyers who can actually do the representation.”

Nadine Yousif Kalasho of Code Legal Aid, a nonprofit legal advocacy group, said this complicates the task of obtaining adequate legal representation.

“A lot of these detainees have been transferred without any notice to the attorneys, which has caused an issue with the attorney even reaching the client, calling the client or visiting them,” Kalasho said. “Attorneys don’t really have the time to take a flight to Arizona because they have to file these motions for their clients. I get calls every day from different states and it’s hard for me to try to mobilize attorney members in those areas because I’m not familiar with the immigration culture in those areas, I don’t know the immigration attorneys. A lot of these attorneys are reluctant to take these cases because there’s not enough information.”

Many of the detained Iraqi nationals legally immigrated to the country and have lived all of their adult lives in America, but because they have criminal records, ranging from overstaying visas to marijuana possession to assault and homicide, they are at risk of deportation. Goldsmith’s stay gives the detainees three months to build their cases, a process that hinges on two crucial documents: the client’s Alien File, or A-File, and the Record of Proceedings. These are generally only available via a Freedom of Information Act request, responses to which can take up to five months. Goldsmith’s order compelled the government to make the detainees’ A-Files available.

“The first step is getting all the information necessary to the attorney,” Kalasho said. “In an ordinary situation a motion to reopen could take anywhere between three to six months because there’s so much information that is needed. Upon receiving that A-file, that’s pretty much when the 90 day trigger starts. From the moment the attorney gets the A-file, that family has 90 days to file that motion.”

Once the motion is filed, the detainees are safe from deportation throughout the designated three month period.

According to Goldsmith’s order, more than 80% of the detainees have been subject to final orders of removal for at least five years; more than 50% have been subject to final orders of removal for a decade or longer.

“They’ve had final orders of removal for quite some time and based on country conditions in Iraq, we weren’t expecting them to be rounded up and potentially be sent back to Iraq in such a short amount of time,” Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation, said.

“It was a quick victory for Homeland Security, for ICE here in Detroit, because these individuals were reporting every year, they had work permit authorization cards, they’re paying their taxes. If you talk about low hanging fruit, these guys have been in the system for quite some time so it was easy to pick them up.”

Since 2007, a little more than 400 people were deported or voluntarily returned to Iraq, according to Goldsmith’s ruling. Now, 1,444 Iraqis across the country have been detained on final orders of removal.

Most of the detainees are Chaldeans, Iraqi Christians considered a religious minority. Goldsmith’s ruling also cited the conditions the they could face if sent back, as their removal orders “largely predate the deteriorating conditions in Iraq.” Goldsmith noted instability tracing back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, “which brought in its wake the persecution of religious minorities,” and more recently the rise of extremist groups in the region as Christians “in Iraq face significant persecution” at the hands of ISIS.

“On one end we know that we’re a nation of laws, but we also understand that this country protects against cruel and unusual punishment,” Manna said. “This is more of a human rights issue because of what’s happened in Iraq more recently with the Christians there.”

Clarence Dass, a criminal lawyer and defense attorney, represents 25 iraqi detainees. On the day of the arrests he said he went to the ICE headquarters and tried to figure out what was going on and met with various families.

“They were scared that they might get deported because their immigration officer called them and set up a meeting with them, which was strange to them,” Dass said.

One of his clients suffers from Crohn’s disease, and Dass said he has been unable to get proper medical treatment.

“He has been denied a doctor every single time,” Dass said. “We have been trying to file motions to get him medical treatment, but it is very difficult and those motions are very difficult to get granted because the federal government tries to give its own medical treatment, but it’s not via doctor, it’s by nurses. They do not have any doctors on site.”
Dass said closed immigration cases present a large challenge.

Code Legal Aid has been offering counseling and therapy services for family members of detainees at Keys Grace Academy in Madison Heights.

“They’re facing a lot of stress from this, and they just don’t know what’s next. That’s the biggest concern for these families,” Kalasho said. “That’s been a struggle for us as well because there’s only so much we could do. We were able to halt it temporarily, but at the end of the day, their fate lies with the immigration court, and we have to make sure that these families are supported in any case.”

Contact City Editor Carlton Winfrey at 313-222-6831 or