A Detroit federal judge issued a two-week stay Thursday halting the planned deportation of more than 100 Iraqi Christians back to their country of origin.
U.S. District Court Judge Mark A. Goldsmith responded to a habeus corpus petition filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 114 immigrants by staying the deportation orders until he decides whether he has jurisdiction to hear the case.
The Justice Department said the detainees must go to immigration court to try to remain in the U.S., not U.S. District Court. But the ACLU said they might be deported before an immigration judge can consider their requests to stay.
Goldsmith, who heard arguments Wednesday, said he needs more time to consider complex legal issues.
Potential physical harm "far outweighs any conceivable interest the government might have in the immediate enforcement of the removal orders before this court can clarify whether it has jurisdiction to grant relief to petitioners on the merits of their claims," Goldsmith said.
Most of the 114 Iraqis are Chaldean Christians, but some are Shiite Muslims and converts to Christianity. The ACLU says they fear torture or death in Iraq, which agreed to accept them.
"The court took a life-saving action by blocking our clients from being immediately sent back to Iraq," Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, said in a release. "They should have a chance to show that their lives are in jeopardy if forced to return."
The immigrants were arrested as part of a sweep of Metro Detroit by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents earlier this month. At the time, ICE said the arrests were "consistent with the routine, targeted arrests carried out by ICE's Fugitive Operations Teams on a daily basis."
Goldsmith's order expires July 6. Besides the 114 arrested in the Detroit area, 85 other Iraqi nationals were arrested elsewhere in the country, according to ICE. As of April 17, there were 1,444 Iraqi nationals with final orders of removal from the U.S. Eight already have been returned to Iraq.
The detainees include Louis Akrawi, who served more than 20 years in Michigan prisons for second-degree murder. He was accused of arranging a shooting that killed an innocent bystander in 1993.
"He's 69 years old, he has two artificial knees, and he needs surgery on both eyes. Sending him back to Iraq is unfair," his son, Victor Akrawi, told The Detroit News.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.