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Lawyers for Iraqi detainees ask court to release them now

protesters carrying signs
File photo
Michigan Radio
A 2017 Detroit protest in support of Iraqi Christians facing deportation.

More than 100 Iraqi nationals being held in immigration custody should be released because the government lied about Iraq’s willingness to repatriate them, the detainees' lawyers told a federal judge in Detroit Wednesday.

The arguments came as part of a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of Iraqi nationals who face possible deportation because of old criminal records. More than 300 people were rounded up during immigration sweeps in the spring and early summer of 2017. Most were from metro Detroit.

The lawsuit to halt their deportations quickly followed. It argues that many of the Iraqis, the majority of whom are Chaldean Christians, would face persecution or possible death if returned to Iraq. Judge Mark Goldsmith ruled last summer that the government could not deport any of the detainees without giving them a chance to plead their case in immigration court first.

As those cases have proceeded, some of the detainees have resolved their cases, or been released on bond. But more than 100 remain in custody, either because their cases are still ongoing, they couldn’t afford bond, or their immigration cases failed.

Now their lawyers argue that they should go free, too. They told Judge Goldsmith during a Wednesday hearing that the U.S. government doesn’t have a real agreement with Iraq to repatriate the detainees, leading to a series of obstacles that will keep them in detention indefinitely.

For those who remain in custody, “there’s no likelihood of removal in the foreseeable future,” University of Michigan law professor and plaintiff’s attorney Margo Schlanger told the court, accusing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement of a “lack of candor and outright falsehoods” throughout the case.

“You should be very skeptical of ICE’s hopes at this point,” Schlanger told Goldsmith. “At this point in this case, hope is not enough.”

Schlanger said despite the government’s attempts to resist and limit discovery in the case, the plaintiffs have uncovered “signs that Iraq was not issuing travel documents to unwilling repatriates.” She laid out a chronology to support the claim that the government has run into repeated obstacles in the repatriation process, and that officials have failed to produce evidence of a real agreement that Iraq is willing to accept the detainees back into the country.

The plaintiffs are also seeking sanctions for what they call the government’s “falsehoods,” including sworn statements from ICE officials, and its alleged failure to disclose evidence ordered by the court.

The government “repeatedly defied orders to release evidence,” Michigan ACLU attorney Miriam Aukerman said.

Aukerman said detainees who have been held for six months or longer should be released because the law prohibits lengthy detention in immigration cases beyond a “reasonable” period preceding a likely deportation. She argued that the more time that passes, the greater the burden on the government to justify keeping people in detention.

“We are 16 months into this case. We are asking the court to recognize the balance has shifted” toward limiting detention, Aukerman told Goldsmith. “Our overriding concern is to end suffering, and get these detainees home to their families. We could not have class members incarcerated as a result of government delay, deny, and deceit.”

But ICE denies these accusations, calling the plaintiffs’ arguments “wishful thinking.”

ICE lawyer Joseph Darrow told the court the U.S. and Iraq are on the same page when it comes to Iraq accepting deported nationals from the U.S. He said that while its “day to day execution has evolved, there is a basic agreement in place and its basic parameters have not changed.”

Darrow acknowledged that while there have been some difficulties and “details to be ironed out,” any delays have either been the result of court orders or the complexity of obtaining travel documents and other logistics. He denied the plaintiffs’ claim that Iraq has been unwilling to accept any involuntary deportees or otherwise refused to cooperate.

“ICE is moving expeditiously to remove those people with travel documents,” Darrow said, adding that ICE expects to deport a group of Iraqis by the end of November.

ICE also denied that any of its officials lied to the court, saying any statements were “truthful when they were made,” and the plaintiffs can’t prove they did anything worthy of sanctions.

After hearing arguments Wednesday, Goldsmith did not say when he expects to issue a ruling.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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