A US federal judge has been asked to halt the deportations of around 100 Iraqis, mostly Christians, arrested by immigration authorities in the Detroit area over fears of religious persecution in their homeland.
In a coordinated sweep in recent weeks, immigration authorities moved to detain Iraqi immigrants around the country who had final deportation orders and convictions for serious crimes.
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The class action lawsuit, filed by The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week naming seven petitioners, said the detainees must have a chance to prove they could face torture or death if returned to Iraq.
The rights group urged the court to issue an emergency halt to the planned deportations, arguing that many of those affected in Michigan are Chaldean Catholics, who are “widely recognised as targets of brutal persecution in Iraq”.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department said the district court does not have the authority to hear the case and the appeals should be made in immigration court.
But the ACLU said they might be deported before an immigration judge can consider their requests to stay.
Jennifer Newby, the Justice Department attorney at Wednesday’s hearing before US District Judge Mark Goldsmith in Detroit, said the people arrested had known about their deportation orders and should have had time to seek legal remedies.
“They waited until removal was imminent to ask for injunctive relief, thereby creating their own emergencies,” Newby said.
She said the government would not deport anyone to Iraq before June 27 and that at least 50 people have filed motions to reopen their individual cases in immigration court, which could delay any deportations.
“It is unconscionable, un-American, and cruel to send Christians into harm’s way in Iraq. We must be their protector, not their executioner,” Mark Arabo, a Chaldean Christian and president of the Minority Humanitarian Foundation, which is involved in the case, told Al Jazeera.
Over the past several weeks, 114 Iraqi nationals have been arrested in Michigan, while 85 were detained across the rest of the country.
Immigration agents swept up mostly Chaldean Catholics in the Detroit raids, along with Shia Muslims and Christian converts.
Kurdish Iraqis were also picked up in Nashville, Tennessee, activists and family members told Al Jazeera.
Before the hearing, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the court holding red crosses and signs that said “Deportation is a sentence to death”.
No immediate decision was made by the federal judge on Wednesday.