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Today 110 Detained Iraqis Were Supposed To Be Released, Instead Their Case Is In Turmoil

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today was supposed to be a day of celebration for the last few Iraqis still held in detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Around 350 Iraqis were rounded up for deportation in the summer of 2017. The detentions were meant to be short-lived. But today a federal appeals court threw a last-minute monkey wrench into the ongoing case of those who remain. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: This complicated case involves Iraqis living in the U.S. who were ordered deported, many after committing crimes, like longtime Michigan resident Sam Hamama who got into a road rage incident more than 30 years ago.

SAM HAMAMA: The guy came out with a bat. I came out with a gun - unloaded gun. That was the mistake I made and been paying for it ever since that day.

SAMILTON: Hamama spent two years behind bars. But after release, immigration judges allowed him to stay despite his deportation order. That's because for the longest time Iraq has refused to accept involuntary deportees. That appeared to change when President Trump took office, and the administration claimed to have a deal with Iraq. So on June 11, 2017, immigration agents banged on Hamama's front door as his family was getting ready for church. Hamama's daughter Brittany watched as the agents came in to take her dad away.

BRITTANY HAMAMA: The officer was speaking - like, reassured my mom and said, you know, you're going to get a call tomorrow to come and pick him up.

S HAMAMA: Yeah. But when they said take your...

B HAMAMA: Take your belt off...

S HAMAMA: ...Take your belt off...

B HAMAMA: ...Take your ring.

S HAMAMA: ...Take your ring, take your - any jewelry off...

SAMILTON: That's when they knew he wasn't coming home tomorrow. Now, Iraq did initially accept about 30 involuntary deportees but then slammed the door shut. So what were supposed to be brief detentions turned into months of jail. Wendy Richards is an attorney with the firm Miller Canfield and says the government simply moved the goalpost from deportation to indefinite detention.

WENDY RICHARDS: And the fact is that the Iraq government was not willing to accept these people in the near future. And under our Constitution, they should be released. You can't keep people in detention forever.

SAMILTON: And the federal district court judge agreed, ordering ICE to give the detainees bond hearings where many, like Sam Hamama, were released. Later the judge ordered ICE to release the last group of about 110 detainees by today. So here's that monkey wrench. Today the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati issued a last-minute opinion that appears to say the federal district judge had no authority to intervene. The ACLU's Miriam Aukerman says the judges don't disagree that the Iraqis face a grave threat of detention, torture or death were the government actually able to deport them.

MIRIAM AUKERMAN: They didn't dispute that, but they said that the courts are powerless to stop it. It's a very disturbing decision for that reason.

SAMILTON: The decision won't go into effect, though, for six weeks. So the federal district court has told ICE to release the remaining Iraqis, and ICE has agreed. It will not take people back into custody until the 6th Circuit decision becomes final. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHITE STRIPES SONG, "BALL AND BISCUIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.