A federal judge in Detroit on Monday put a temporary hold on the deportation of scores of Iraqi nationals swept up in immigration enforcement raids around the country in recent months.
U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith had already issued a 14-day stay of removal Thursday for at least 114 Iraqis — most of them Chaldean Christians — detained in the Detroit area, saying he needed time to weigh whether he has jurisdiction over the case.
On Monday, he granted a request from lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant rights advocates to extend the order nationwide to prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement from deporting people they said could face persecution, torture or death in Iraq.
"Such harm far outweighs any interest the government may have in proceeding with the removals immediately," Goldsmith said in a written decision.
The order applies to more than 1,400 Iraqi immigrants who have been issued final orders of removal, either for overstaying a visa or because of a criminal conviction.
In many cases, those orders were issued years ago, the ACLU said in its petition. But Iraq refused to accept the immigrants, so the government eventually released them, often under supervision orders. Some have now lived in the U.S. for decades and have spouses or children who are citizens.
The roundups began after an agreement was reached with Iraq in March to take back its nationals, said Khaalid Walls, a spokesman for the ICE field office in Detroit. In addition to those detained in Detroit, at least 85 other Iraqis have been taken into custody around the country since May, he said.
They include Ghassan Kassab, who was picked up at his Detroit home in late May.
Kassab was 5 years old when his family fled Saddam Hussein's brutal government in Iraq. He has lived most of his life — 47 years — in the U.S. But he now faces the possiblity of being sent back to a country where he has no ties — and where his family fears his Christian faith could get him killed.
"He does not know how to read Arabic, and he does not remember anything from that country," said Kassab's niece, Marvit Bahoura, 38. "It's like they are throwing him to his death sentence."
Because Kassab's parents didn't speak English, she said, the family never applied for U.S. citizenship. They found the process too confusing. So when Kassab was convicted on a marijuana possession charge more than a decade ago, he was issued a deportation order.
Bahoura said her uncle served three years in prison and had been reporting regularly to ICE ever since.
"He's worked at the same landscape company for 23 years," she said. "He's a hardworking man."
Detroit is home to more than 100,000 Chaldean Christians, one of the largest populations outside of Iraq. Many fled their war-torn homeland decades ago and fear persecution by extremist groups such as Islamic State if they return.
They thought they had found a haven in the U.S., but with the threat of deportation looming over hundreds of families, some are questioning their place in a country which no longer seems so welcoming.
"The Iraqi Chaldean community is shocked and don't understand why this is happening," said Wisam Naoum, an attorney and Chaldean community leader in Detroit. "We feel a bit betrayed. It's a direct assault on our community."
Many of the city's Iraqi Christians were staunch supporters of President Trump, who in January tweeted, "Christians in the Middle East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!" They did not expect to get swept up in Trump's crackdown on immigration.
"My entire family voted for him because he said he would help protect Christians," Bahoura said.
The possibility that her uncle will now be deported has her fearful not only for his safety, but for her health. She suffers from a debilitating autoimmune disorder and received a bone marrow transplant from her uncle this year.
"There's a 70% chance that if my body rejects the bone marrow, I'll need another one," Bahoura said. "But if they deport Kassab, there's a slim chance I'll be able to find another match."
Many of those detained in Detroit were picked up on June 11 near churches and restaurants favored by the Iraqi Chaldean community, according to immigrant rights advocates. Others were detained at their homes or at one of their regular appointments with ICE.
It was early in the morning when six ICE agents showed up at the door of Brittany Hamama, 20. They were there for her 47-year-old father, Usama Hamama, who she said left Iraq as a child.
"They said he'll be back tomorrow," she recalled, "but I didn't believe them."
The threat of deportation has loomed over the family since he was convicted of aggravated assault in a road-rage incident. But that was 30 years ago, his daughter said.
"My dad's roots are in the U.S., he knows nothing else," she said. "This doesn't seem real."
Rebecca Adducci, the Detroit field office director for ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations, said the agency targeted those with criminal convictions for removal.
"The operation in this region was specifically conducted to address the very real public safety threat represented by the criminal aliens arrested," she said in a statement. "The vast majority of those arrested in the Detroit metropolitan area have very serious felony convictions, multiple felony convictions in many cases."
The Department of Justice argued that the detainees should make their request to remain in the U.S. in immigration court, not U.S. district court. But the ACLU said they might be deported before an immigration judge could consider their requests.
At least eight detainees have already been sent back to Iraq, and the ACLU said others could be deported as soon as Tuesday.
"It's never been U.S. policy to send people back where they could be persecuted," said Nadine Yousif Kalasho, an attorney from Code Legal Aid, a Michigan-based nonprofit that was a party to the petition. "The court understands what's at stake in terms of applying this nationwide and saw the urgency."
Attorneys for the government said they would exam the judge's ruling before deciding their next steps.
"I can't say we are surprised," said Daniel Lemisch, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. "It's an extraordinary opinion, but these are very unusual circumstances in Iraq."
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7:45 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction from the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.
7:00 p.m.: This article was updated with a federal judge extending his stay of removal to Iraqis around the country.