A federal judge on Monday blocked the potential deportation of more than 1,400 Iraqis, indefinitely halting efforts by immigration authorities to remove a population that fears persecution in their home country.
US district judge Mark Goldsmith’s decision gives the Iraqis, 234 of whom are detained, time to appeal their deportation cases in court. He temporarily blocked the deportation effort last month.
Many of those detained are members of the Chaldean Christian minority and claimed returning to Iraq would be a “death sentence” because Islamic State and other militants have targeted religious and ethnic minorities as well as Iraqis associated with “western interests”.
“Each petitioner faces the risk of torture or death on the basis of residence in America and publicized criminal records,” Goldsmith wrote. “Many will also face persecution as a result of a particular religious affiliation.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) has said the district court should not have jurisdiction over the cases and that appeals should be settled in immigration courts. Goldsmith wrote in his 34-page opinion that this position was inconsistent with constitutional protections and “ignores the compelling confluence of extraordinary circumstances presented”.
“While cost and efficiency in administering the immigration system are not illegitimate governmental concerns, such interests pale to the point of evaporation when weighed against the potential lethal harm petitioners may suffer,” the judge wrote.
Ice has said those targeted for deportation pose a threat to national security and public safety and that “the overwhelming majority” of those detained had criminal convictions for either “homicide, rape, aggravated assault, kidnapping, burglary, drug trafficking, robbery, sex assault, weapons violations and other offenses”.
The detainees’ families and community advocates insist many of those crimes were perpetrated decades ago and the people found guilty of them have either served prison time or paid penalties. Goldsmith said that more than 50% of those detained have been subject to orders of removal for at least a decade.
Ice did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Its lawyers are expected to appeal.
In a court filing last week, William Silvis, an attorney for the US justice department, said: “This court and petitioners rely primarily on conditions in Isis-controlled territory to establish harm. But no alien would be removed to that part of Iraq.”
Iraq had not cooperated with US deportation efforts but the two countries negotiated a new policy in March after President Donald Trump issued a travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq. The ban was struck down in federal court, then revised with Iraq removed. The revised version is subject to a challenge before the US supreme court.
Three months after Iraq began complying with US deportation requests, Ice conducted immigration sweeps in which 114 individuals were arrested in the Detroit-area, while 85 others were arrested in Tennessee, New Mexico and California.
There are 234 Iraqis subject to final orders of removal being detained in 31 facilities across the country.
Lawyers for those detained brought a class action lawsuit against Ice. The lawsuit alleges that the petitioners, if returned to Iraq, could face the “very real probability of persecution, torture or death”.
Then secretary of state John Kerry declared a genocide in Iraq against Christians and other minorities in March 2016, days after the US House voted to make the same declaration.
Goldsmith first issued a stay on deportations for the Detroit-area Iraqis on 22 June, then extended it the following week to all Iraqis facing orders of removal in the US.
Four current and former United Nations special rapporteurs on torture filed an amicus brief last week in support of the petitioners, writing that deporting this population could put them in danger of being subjected to torture. The rapporteurs concluded all plaintiffs should be given access to trial to determine whether it was safe to return them to Iraq.
Some of the detained Iraqis have asked Michigan governor Rick Snyder for pardons on their criminal convictions.
Local judges have started to hear requests from detainees seeking a reduction or removal of past criminal convictions. The first such case saw an attorney ask for client Haydar Butris to have a 1999 felony plea for marijuana delivery reduced. Butris entered the US legally as a teenager and hoped to have his sentence reduced so he could become a citizen, according to the Detroit Free Press. The judge is weighing the case.