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US judge halts the deportation of more than 100 Iraqi Christians

Supporters of Detroit's Chaldean Christian community rally outside the federal courthouse to protest against the US government's arrest of dozens of Chaldean Christians and others who are scheduled to be deported (Photo: CNS photo/Jim West)

A judge has temporarily halted the deportation of more than 100 Iraqi Christians living in the Detroit area who fear torture and possible death if sent back to Iraq.

US District Judge Mark Goldsmith said in a written order that deportation is halted for 14 days while he decides if his court has jurisdiction to hear their plight.

The Justice Department had argued that the detainees, including many who were recently rounded up after decades in the US, must go to immigration court to try to remain in the US, not US District Court. But the American Civil Liberties Union said they might be deported before an immigration judge can consider their requests to stay.

Goldsmith heard arguments on Wednesday. He said he needed more time to consider complex legal issues.

Potential physical harm “far outweighs any conceivable interest the government might have in the immediate enforcement of the removal orders before this court can clarify whether it has jurisdiction to grant relief to petitioners on the merits of their claims”, Goldsmith said.

Most of the 114 Iraqis are Chaldean Christians, but some are Shiite Muslims and converts to Christianity. They were arrested on or about June 11 and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said all have criminal convictions.

Iraq recently agreed to accept Iraqi nationals subject to removal from the US.

“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, said in a release. “They should have a chance to show that their lives are in jeopardy if forced to return.”

Besides the 114 arrested in the Detroit area, 85 other Iraqi nationals were arrested elsewhere in the country, according to ICE. As of April 17, there were 1,444 Iraqi nationals with final orders of removal from the US. Eight have already been returned to Iraq.

The detainees include Louis Akrawi, who served more than 20 years in Michigan prisons for second-degree murder. He was accused of arranging a shooting that killed an innocent bystander in 1993.

“He’s 69 years old, he has two artificial knees, and he needs surgery on both eyes. Sending him back to Iraq is unfair,” his son, Victor Akrawi, told the Detroit News.

The president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the chairmen of the bishops’ migration and international policy committees urged Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly to defer the deportation of Chaldeans earlier this week.

“Returning religious minorities to Iraq at this time, without specific plans for protection, does not appear consistent with our concerns about genocide and persecution of Christians in Iraq,” the bishops wrote.

“We strongly encourage you to exercise the discretion available to you under law,” they said, “to defer the deportation of persons to Iraq, particularly Christians and Chaldean Catholics, who pose no threat to US public safety, until such time as the situation in Iraq stabilises and its government proves willing and capable of protecting the rights of religious minorities.”

The letter was signed by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, bishops’ conference president; Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace; and Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the Committee on Migration.

Additional reporting by Catholic News Service.