ACLU argues that deporting 1,400 Iraqis would jeopardize their lives

By Ellie Kaufman and Susannah Cullinane

(CNN) -- The American Civil Liberties Union has expanded a petition to prevent the deportation of Iraqis in Michigan and Northern Ohio into a nationwide class action covering more than 1,400 Iraqis facing removal orders.

The ACLU and detainees argue that if the Iraqis were forced to return to Iraq, they would face "persecution, torture, or death."

A hearing is set for Monday morning at the US District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Stay of removal

A federal judge on June 22 granted a 14-day stay of removal for more than 100 Iraqi detainees under the jurisdiction of Detroit's Immigration Customs Enforcement office (ICE), after the ACLU filed its initial complaint on June 15.

The stay prevents any of the Iraqis detained by Detroit ICE agents from being deported for two more weeks. It also gives detainees an opportunity to go before an immigration judge and make their case for why they believe they should be allowed to stay in the United States.

In his decision granting the temporary stay, US District Judge Mark Goldsmith argued that the potential "harm far outweighs" the government's interest in immediately enforcing the removal orders, according to court documents.

As well as expanding its class action nationwide, the ACLU filed a motion Saturday asking Goldsmith to extend his stay-of-removal order nationwide. It said it had asked the judge for a ruling by Monday because ICE had indicated that it might start deportations as early as Tuesday.

ICE last week said it was reviewing the judge's stay of removal order in the Michigan case and intended to comply with its terms.

Shift in ICE focus

In its amended complaint, the ACLU said plaintiffs had in many cases been living in the United States for decades.

"According to government officials, there are more than 1,400 Iraqi nationals with final orders of removal.

"Although most were ordered removed to Iraq years ago (some for overstaying visas, others based on criminal convictions for which they long ago completed any sentences), the government released them, often under orders of supervision," the ACLU said in its amended complaint.

The ACLU said the plaintiffs had been complying with the conditions of their release when "with no warning" ICE began arresting and detaining them because Iraq had agreed to take them back.

Iraq recently said it would accept deportees in exchange for being removed from the countries listed in President Donald Trump's travel ban.

That agreement triggered a shift in the focus of ICE raids, according to ICE's press secretary Gillian Christensen. The office had arrested 199 Iraqi nationals since May, 114 of them from Detroit, Christensen said in a statement earlier this month. ICE says most have criminal records.

Jurisdiction issue

Over the next two weeks, Judge Goldsmith will try to determine whether or not a federal district court has jurisdiction over the matter in the first place.

The US attorney's office argued that a federal district court did not have jurisdiction over whether or not these Iraqis can be deported. They believe it should be handled by an immigration court, according to Gina Balaya, public information officer for the US attorney's office for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Goldsmith granted the 14-day stay "pending the Court's determination regarding whether it has subject-matter jurisdiction," according to court documents.

Many of the Iraqis who were detained are Chaldeans, members of an Iraqi Christian group that has historically faced problems in Iraq. The Detroit metropolitan area is home to the largest US group of Chaldeans.

Some of them started immigrating to the United States in the 1920s for opportunities and freedom, the Chaldean Community Foundation said.

Many faced persecution during the Saddam Hussein era, during the Iraq war and after ISIS seized territory in Iraq.

"The court took a life-saving action by blocking our clients from being immediately sent back to Iraq," Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, who argued the case, said in a statement last week. "They should have a chance to show that their lives are in jeopardy if forced to return."

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