U.S. judge urged to halt Iraqi deportations due to Christian persecution fears

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Iraqis and supporters rally outside the Theodore Levin United States Courthouse Wednesday in Detroit. A hearing began on a lawsuit that seeks to stop the government from deporting more than 100 Iraqi nationals who were recently rounded up. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in federal court in Detroit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seeking a temporary stay of deportations. | AP
World / Social Issues

DETROIT/NEW YORK – A U.S. judge heard arguments on Wednesday to halt the deportations of around 100 Iraqis arrested by immigration authorities in the Detroit area because many belong to minorities and could face torture or religious persecution in their homeland.

In a coordinated sweep in recent weeks, immigration authorities moved to detain Iraqi immigrants around the country who had final deportation orders and convictions for serious crimes. The roundup followed Iraq’s agreement to accept deportees, as part of a deal that removed the country from President Donald Trump’s temporary travel ban signed in March.

Some of those affected came to the United States as children and committed their crimes decades ago, but they had been allowed to stay because Iraq previously declined to issue travel documents for them. That changed after the two governments came to an agreement on March 12.

The class action lawsuit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, asks the court to issue an emergency halt to the planned removals, arguing that many of those affected in Michigan are Chaldean Catholics, who are “widely recognized as targets of brutal persecution in Iraq.”

The ACLU argues that deporting the Iraqis could violate the United Nations Convention Against Torture, an international human rights treaty adopted by the United States.

The U.S. government says the district court does not have jurisdiction to hear the case, and that the immigrants can appeal their claims in immigration court.

Jennifer Newby, the Justice Department attorney at Wednesday’s hearing before U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith in Detroit, said the people arrested had known about their deportation orders and should have had time to seek legal remedies.

“They waited until removal was imminent to ask for injunctive relief, thereby creating their own emergencies,” Newby said.

She said the government would not deport anyone to Iraq before June 27 and that at least 50 people have filed motions to reopen their individual cases in immigration court, which could delay any deportations.

ICE has said that people with convictions for murder, rape, assault, kidnapping, burglary and drugs and weapons charges were among the 199 Iraqis arrested in their operations nationwide.

Goldsmith did not say when he would issue a ruling in the case.

The ICE arrests, many of them carried out on June 11 and 12, surprised and shocked the close knit Iraqi community in Michigan. Many of those arrested have been transported to detention facilities in Youngstown, Ohio, and other states.

Some Kurdish Iraqis were also picked up in Nashville, Tennessee, but they are not covered by the current class action, said Lee Gelernt, the ACLU attorney arguing the case.

“There’s absolutely no question the government can’t deport somebody to be tortured,” Gelernt argued in court.

“What they’re challenging are the current conditions in Iraq. Through no fault of their own, they’re still here. Iraq wouldn’t take them back. Now the government wants to send them back,” he said.

Six Michigan lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives, five Democrats and one Republican, sent a letter urging the Department of Homeland Security to hold off on the removals until Congress can review the agreement between the United States and Iraq and be given assurances about the deportees’ safety.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the courthouse waving American flags and holding red crosses and signs with slogans like “Deportation is a sentence to death.”

In the 2016 election, Trump won in Michigan’s Macomb County north of Detroit where many Iraqi Chaldeans live.

Shantal Hanna, a 24-year-old Trump supporter whose husband, Maher, 40, was detained by ICE, said she voted for the president in part because he had promised to protect Christian minorities in Iraq.

Hanna said her husband of three years, who owns a valet car service, was arrested more than a decade ago on a drug possession charge and had been ordered deported. She held a sign with the photo of Trump being blessed by a Chaldean priest on the campaign trail in Michigan with the words “You vowed to protect us.”

U.S. judge urged to halt Iraqi deportations due to Christian persecution fears