Some 50 Iraqi immigrants who a judge found were at serious risk of torture if returned to their homeland are being bullied by federal agents into signing “voluntary” travel documents needed for them to be deported, according to charges their lawyers filed at federal court in Detroit.
The lawyers are seeking an emergency order, to be argued Monday, to bar Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from threatening the Iraqis with criminal prosecution or indefinite immigration detention if they refuse to sign a letter stating that they want to be returned to Iraq.
The court papers say that the imprisoned Iraqis were transferred from other facilities to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. without notice to their lawyers, and coerced there into signing “voluntary” travel documents based on misleading legal advice from ICE agents and Iraqi consular officials who claimed, wrongly, they were likely to lose their cases in immigration court.
The lawyers assert that ICE prevented them from seeing the Iraqi detainees until it was too late—almost all of the 50 signed the papers after meetings with Iraqi consular officials and ICE agents.
“Numerous misleading and abusive tactics were employed to obtain the detainees’ signatures on documents expressing their `desire to return voluntarily to Iraq,’ even when the detainees do not actually so desire,” according to papers filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday.
Justice Department lawyers said in documents hurriedly filed Friday that they would look into the allegations of coercion, but treated the charges as unlikely based on an affidavit from an ICE supervisor from Washington who was present in the facility.
“To my knowledge, none of the officials at the Stewart Detention Facility requested interviewees to sign” the travel forms, the ICE supervisor said, “because they would not have had those documents and they are not involved in the process of obtaining travel documents.”
The emergency motion is the latest twist in a lawsuit challenging ICE’s attempt to round up and deport some 1,400 Iraqis, many of them from Iraq’s ancient Chaldean Christian community or other religious minority groups. They’ve long faced orders of deportation—the majority of the orders goes back at least 10 years—but were not returned because of limits Iraq placed on repatriations.
Last year, federal authorities made a deal with Iraq to ease the path for their return. They suddenly detained some 300 Iraqi immigrants, many of them Chaldean Christians from the Detroit area. That’s when civil-liberties groups filed suit and won a preliminary injunction from U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith requiring that they be given time to demonstrate in immigration court why, under current circumstances in Iraq, they would likely face torture and religious persecution. Under U.S. law and the international Convention against Torture, immigrants can’t be sent to a country where it is more likely than not that they would be tortured.
“Their status as religious minorities places them at grave risk of torture and other forms of persecution at the hands of ISIS, other Sunni insurgencies, and the various Shi’a militias,” Goldsmith wrote in a decision last July 24. Even without ISIS, the terrain remains treacherous for the Iraqi immigrants because of the militias and Iraq’s own internal security forces, the judge found.
A decision on the government’s appeal of Goldsmith’s orders is pending at the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which held a hearing on April 25. The government maintains that the proper jurisdiction is immigration court and not with a federal judge. But given the procedures in the immigration courts, the Iraqis would likely have been deported before getting their immigration cases reopened—especially, as their lawyers say, because they were transferred to jails that are far from legal help or relatives.
Goldsmith’s order was expanded to cover a class of 1,400 Iraqis in a similar position. Of the 300 who were detained, 130 remain in jail.
Both sides in the case seemed to be still sorting out what was going on at Stewart. Justice Department lawyers said that the Iraqis they were about to deport no longer had a valid claim to stay in the country, in some cases because they failed to meet the 90-day deadline Judge Goldsmith had set for them to reopen their cases in immigration court.
The allegation that ICE agents were deliberately giving the detainees false legal advice—and at the same time keeping the civil-liberties lawyers from seeing them—echoes an earlier dispute in the case. The ACLU lawyers had said that ICE stymied the ability of the Iraqi detainees to file motions in immigration court because of their transfers to out-of-state jails. Some were transferred repeatedly.
Federal authorities said they did this because there was not enough room in local county jails. Goldsmith said he took the government at its word that it was not intentionally depriving the Iraqis of counsel. Nonetheless, he wrote, “the effect of these transfers has been to severely disrupt this right.”
In a series of affidavits filed in court, the Iraqi detainees described how ICE agents threatened them, echoed by Iraqi consular officials in separate meetings at the Stewart Detention Center. (The ICE supervisor said no ICE agents were present when the detainees met the Iraqi consular officials, and the Iraqi consulate in Washington did not return a message left Thursday seeking comment.)
In one case, an Iraqi immigrant said that an Iraqi consular official “pressured me very hard to sign the letter. He said if I did not, he would tell ICE. He also said that if I did not sign the letter, that would just prolong my detention indefinitely.” The man said he refused to sign. The next day, he said, an ICE officer “told me he was giving me a second opportunity so sign the letter. Otherwise, he said, the government would prosecute me for refusing.” He still didn’t sign: “I am afraid to return to Iraq because I fear torture and persecution.”