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June 24, 2017; Reuters

The arrest of more than 114 Iraqi Chaldean Catholic immigrants in Detroit as well as another 85, mostly Kurds, in other parts of the country has sparked an outcry and a court dilemma. In response to these arrests, the ACLU of Detroit filed a lawsuit in federal district court to stay the deportation orders of the Detroit detainees. U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith issued orders allowing those arrested in Detroit to stay for another two weeks while he determines if the federal courts have jurisdiction in this case. The Department of Justice has indicated their belief that this case belongs in Immigration Court, as those are the only courts that should determine deportation issues.

The ACLU asked Goldsmith to rule by this week on expanding his order to cover the more than 1,400 Iraqis facing expulsion across the United States. The immigration agency has indicated it might start those deportations as soon as Tuesday of this week.

The outcry over these particular arrests stems from the history of persecution of Christians and Kurds in Iraq. Judge Goldsmith’s temporary stay cited the potential for “loss of life” should the deportations go forward without an “orderly court process.”

“Irreparable harm is made out by the significant chance of loss of life and lesser forms of persecution that Petitioners have substantiated,” Goldsmith wrote in his ruling Thursday. “The public interest is also better served by an orderly court process that assures that Petitioners’ invocation of federal court relief is considered before the removal process continues.”

In order to be removed from President Trump’s temporary travel ban targeting the residents of six Muslim-majority countries, Iraq reversed its policy on travel documents. The “repatriation” of deportees to Iraq is what these documents address, but little is known of the content of the U.S./Iraq agreement. Because so little is known, the Detroit Free Press reports, six U.S. representatives from Michigan wrote to Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on Thursday to request a copy of the government’s repatriation agreement with Iraq and any information about safety measures planned for the arrested Iraqi nationals.

“Until we in Congress can review all aspects of the agreement reached with Iraq, and the referenced safety measures, we urge you to hold off removal of these individuals to Iraq,” they wrote.

Christians can face severe religious persecution in the Middle East, and both the Obama and Trump administrations have declared the treatment of the group a “genocide.” Many Iraqi Christians in Michigan voted for Trump in the recent election, and community members have said they were startled the arrests went ahead despite the president’s campaign promises to protect Christian refugees.

Trump’s initial executive order on immigration included a provision “to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” In partial response to the court challenges to the initial executive order, this exception was removed from the current version of the executive order issued in March.

Authorities with Immigration and Customs Enforcement have defended the arrests despite the outcry. In a statement to the Detroit Free Press last week, Rebecca Adducci, the field office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Detroit, said the proposed deportations addressed “the very real public safety threat represented” by those detained.

This may all come down to a question of which court will have the final say. For the moment, the federal court’s stay on deporting the Detroit detainees remains in place. At this writing, it has not been extended to a national stay. The Department of Justice and ICE have stated this does not belong in the federal courts, but rather is a matter for Immigration Courts to determine. The ACLU of Detroit disagrees. Clearly, courts matter. If this case reverts to the Immigration Courts, deportations will most likely occur and could happen quickly. When the stakes of the issue could be life and death, the importance of the role of the federal judiciary is front and center.—Carole Levine