DETROIT — Lawyers who successfully sued to stop the deportation of 1,400 people to Iraq complained Thursday that federal agents are harassing some in U.S. custody by urging them to give up the fight or face more than a year in detention while their cases slowly move through the immigration system.
The American Civil Liberties Union accused agents and guards of coercion. U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith held a status hearing, weeks after he blocked the deportation of Iraqi nationals to give them time to challenge their removal. Many are Christians who fear they’ll be tortured or killed if sent to Iraq.
The U.S. says the Iraqis have committed crimes and must be kicked out. Roughly 21 percent, or 288, of the 1,400 are in custody at dozens of sites. A detention center in Youngstown, Ohio, is holding more than 100.
“ICE employees and/or contractors are subjecting the detainees to harassment, factual distortion and pressure to abandon their rights,” the ACLU said in a court filing, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In response, Justice Department lawyer William Silvis said he felt “sandbagged” by the allegations and asked for more details. Goldsmith didn’t take any action.
The goal of the lawsuit was to halt deportations and give Iraqi nationals an opportunity to reopen their cases in immigration court. The process, however, is moving slowly. ACLU attorney Miriam Aukerman said the government still hasn’t turned over individual files necessary to take that step.
Silvis said immigration agencies mostly rely on paper files that are scattered around the country and must be scanned. The process will take weeks.
France Elias, 37, of North Las Vegas, Nevada, has been in custody since May. He said he’s being deported because of a nonviolent robbery in 2000. But as a Roman Catholic, he fears for his life if returned to Iraq.
Elias said his wife is selling their home to pay bills and hire an immigration lawyer.
“It’s the fight for my life,” he said in a court filing.
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