Federal judge temporarily blocks deportation of Iraqi Christians
By Ellie Kaufman
(CNN) -- A federal judge temporarily blocked the deportation of over 100 Iraqis in Michigan on Thursday by granting a 14-day stay of removal.
The stay prevents any of the Iraqis detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement 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.
ICE has arrested 199 Iraqi nationals since May; 114 of them from Detroit, according to its press secretary Gillian Christensen. ICE says most have criminal records.
Four days after more than 100 Iraqi nationals were detained last week, some detainees and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a petition in federal court arguing that if they were forced to return to Iraq they would face "persecution, torture, or death."
ICE is reviewing the judge's order.
"The agency intends to comply with the terms of the order, while determining the appropriate next steps," an ICE spokesperson said.
Iraqi and Christian
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. "They should have a chance to show that their lives are in jeopardy if forced to return."
The ACLU plans to ask the judge to extend the restraining order beyond 14 days, Gelernt said.
A second chance
In Michigan, many of the Iraqis detained have been living in the United States for years.
Shoki Konja, 57, was excited about the judge's decision to grant a temporary stay. His brother, Najah Konja, 55, was detained and is being held at the ICE detention center in Youngstown, Ohio.
"We had no hope yesterday, but now our hopes are getting in the right direction," Konja told CNN. "We are American, and we are part of the system. This is a step in the right direction within the process."
Najah Konja has a criminal record. After coming to the country as a 15-year-old, his brother said he fell in with the wrong crowd. He was convicted of drug conspiracy charges as a 21-year-old and spent about 20 years behind bars. Since getting out, his brother said, he has turned his life around.
Najah owns a tobacco shop in the Detroit area. He's engaged and has been staying out of trouble, his brother said. He lost the ability to have a Green Card because of his conviction, but he has been checking in annually with ICE, most recently in November. Then he was detained on June 11.The temporary stay issued on Thursday gives detainees a chance to have a hearing before an immigration judge.
Shoki hopes a judge will rule that his brother can stay in the United States, where he's lived for almost 40 years.
"Hopefully someone will have a heart to keep him here," Shoki said.
Over the next two weeks, US District Judge Mark Goldsmith, who issued the decision, 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 didn't exactly agree or disagree with the US attorney's office in his decision granting the temporary stay. Instead, he argued that the potential "harm far outweighs" the government's interest in immediately enforcing the removal orders, according to court documents.
Goldsmith granted the stay "pending the Court's determination regarding whether it has subject-matter jurisdiction," according to court documents.
CNN's Sonia Moghe, Dave Alsup, Nicole Chavez and Lauren del Valle contributed to this report.
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