In June, the metro Detroit area was suddenly thrust into chaos as U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents descended and rounded up hundreds of Iraqi nationals.
Reports of people being arrested in the middle of breakfast or on their way to church abounded. Most of them were Chaldean Christians, who have long faced religious persecution in Iraq and are now being targeted by ISIS.
Those individuals are now waiting to find out whether they'll be deported — a move which, in the words of ACLU of Michigan legal director Michael Steinberg, would be a "death sentence for hundreds of people who have lived in this country productively for decades."
And because many of them have been moved to immigration detention centers in Arizona, it has made it even harder for them to apply for legal protections.
In addition to Michigan, raids targeting Iraqi nationals also took place in the Nashville area, where there's a large Kurdish community, as well as California and Texas. Arizona is one of four states where Iraqis arrested in those sweeps have been transferred, court documents show.
ICE officials weren't able to produce an exact head count by our deadline, but attorneys from the ACLU of Arizona who've been able to visit the immigration detention center in Florence and speak to detainees have been told that there are somewhere in the range of 80 to 100 Iraqis being held there.
Representatives for ICE say that the "overwhelming majority" of Iraqi nationals in its custody have previously been convicted of a crime, "including homicide, rape, aggravated assault, kidnapping, burglary, drug trafficking, robbery, sex assault, weapons violations, and other offenses."
Steinberg characterizes it differently.
"Most of these folks committed some kind of crime decades ago," he says. "Some of them were minor crimes, like fraud or misdemeanors, for which they did not even serve time."
He adds, "In its rush to deport as many immigrants as possible, ICE is putting hundreds of individuals who have lived in this country for decades in danger of being persecuted or killed."
It's a well-known fact that Iraq is a dangerous place. Being an Iraqi citizen (or a Muslim) doesn't decrease your likelihood of being kidnapped and possibly executed by ISIS once they discover that you have ties to the U.S — in fact, it only makes you more of a target.
Religious minorities, like the Yazidis and Chaldean Christians swept up in the recent ICE raids, are particularly at risk of being murdered in mass killing sprees or sold into sexual slavery.
By filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Iraqis caught up in the raids, the ACLU was able to temporarily stop immigration officials from deporting them, which essentially buys them time to put together court cases of their own.
"The whole purpose is to make sure that individuals in this country have the opportunity to prove that they would subjected to torture, persecution, or death if removed to Iraq," Steinberg explains. "For many of them, this is similar to a stay in a death penalty case."
But the fact that many of the Iraqis who were originally arrested in Michigan or Tennessee have since been moved to detention facilities in other states has made the process of putting a court case together difficult, he notes.
"Their lawyers are out here, their families are here, the documentation that they need is here. It’s hard to track them down and get them to sign papers."
It's unclear exactly why many of the Iraqis who were detained in other states ended up in Arizona. In response to inquiries from Phoenix New Times, ICE issued a statement saying that the agency "routinely transfers detainees to other detention facilities based on available resources and the needs of the agency."
Meanwhile, ICE has continued to arrest Iraqi nationals, despite the temporary ban on deportations, Steinberg says. (Close to 200 Iraqi nationals have been arrested since May, ICE confirmed on Thursday.)
Anyone whose family members have been detained should seek advice from an immigration attorney as soon as possible, the ACLU advises. The stay that's in effect will expire on July 24, at which point anyone without a pending case in immigration court could be deported immediately.
The International Refugee Assistance Program has created an online form to help connect Iraqi nationals who face deportation with immigration attorneys who may be able to help.
Here's ICE's full statement on the Iraqis being detained in Arizona:
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“As part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) efforts to process the backlog of Iraqi individuals, the agency has arrested 199 Iraqi nationals nationwide since May 2017, the overwhelming majority of whom had criminal convictions for crimes — including homicide, rape, aggravated assault, kidnapping, burglary, drug trafficking, robbery, sex assault, weapons violations, and other offenses. As a result of recent negotiations between the U.S. and Iraq, Iraq has recently agreed to accept a number of Iraqi nationals subject to orders of removal.
"ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security. However, as Secretary Kelly has made clear, ICE will not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.
"These arrests are consistent with the routine, targeted enforcement action carried out by ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations on a daily basis. All enforcement activities are conducted with the same level of professionalism and respect that ICE officers exhibit every day.
"To accommodate various operational demands, ICE routinely transfers detainees to other detention facilities based on available resources and the needs of the agency. As appropriate, ICE coordinates with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which administers the nation’s immigration courts, to ensure the continuity of any ongoing legal proceedings.”