Iraq was the first country to earn its way off President Trump’s travel ban last year, after the administration said it wanted to thank the Muslim nation for agreeing to start taking back its deportees whom the U.S. was trying to oust.
But evidence has emerged suggesting that either Iraq has backslid or the deal was never what the administration said it was in the first place.
Iraq has told U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that it will not take back any deportees who don’t volunteer to go back.
For a war-torn country such as Iraq, that turns out to be a huge portion of those the U.S. is trying to oust. It also puts a kink in the Trump administration’s plans to deport hundreds of Iraqis who have been stuck in legal limbo for decades.
ICE has registered its protests, including in a June letter to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington with an “urgent request” to clear a half-dozen deportees whom the Middle Eastern nation had been slow-walking.
But the Iraqi government reiterated its policy in a July memo from its migration ministry to its foreign ministry, saying any Iraqi who doesn’t volunteer to be deported won’t be accepted.
“We received information showing that some of the countries in which Iraqis are located intend to return them forcibly, particularly the United States and the European Union. This is against the policy of the state and international laws and norms,” Iraq’s Migration and Displacement Ministry wrote. “Please emphasize to all our embassies and consulates in the countries of the world where Iraqis are, to ensure that they are not deported and forced to return.”
Homeland Security Department officials declined to comment, citing an ongoing court case involving the potential Iraqi deportees.
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the Iraqi position violates international conventions and is a clear attempt “to slither out of repatriation commitments they made” to the Trump administration.
She said the U.S. government should retaliate quickly by slapping Iraq with visa sanctions. Under federal law, countries that refuse to cooperate in taking back their deportees are supposed to be punished by having the government refuse to issue visas.
“I would start with diplomats and official travelers, and consider expanding the sanctions to students or other temporary visas,” she said. “We should not be accepting more travelers from countries that they cannot be returned to. Citizens of Iraq already overstay at a very high rate, so to the extent we keep issuing visas, we are asking for this problem.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
After Iraq appeared as one of the seven majority-Muslim countries on Mr. Trump’s travel ban in January 2017, the country moved quickly to earn its way off the list.
In addition to appealing to its cooperation in the war on terror, Iraq said it would take back deportees, the Trump administration said.
“Iraq has agreed to the timely return and repatriation of its nationals who are subject to final orders of removal,” a Homeland Security official told reporters in describing the Iraq deal. “That is a very, very important provision.”
But neither the administration nor Iraq would reveal details of the agreement at the time.
What U.S. officials did do was quickly round up hundreds of Iraqis. Some of them had been in the U.S. for decades and had amassed serious criminal records, but they were released into the community because they couldn’t be sent back. Now they are slated for deportation.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan stepped in and sued on their behalf, arguing that it was tantamount to a death sentence to send them back to Iraq. A judge halted the deportations, and the case has been kicking around the courts ever since.
During the legal discovery process, it became clear that Iraq and the Trump administration had no written formal agreement. Instead, they shook hands on a deal on which they no longer share the same view.
ICE says it thought it won full rights to deport Iraqis.
“It is the responsibility of ICE to execute the warrant of removal of these Iraqi nationals in a safe and timely manner regardless of their desire to return to Iraq,” ICE removal chief Michael Bernanke wrote in the June letter to the embassy.
Iraqi officials, though, have said in multiple forums that they want nothing to do with people who don’t want to return.
The Washington Times contacted the Iraqi Embassy in Washington last month to get clarity on the situation.
An official first said he was waiting for a response from “the appropriate channels” before commenting but failed to respond to follow-up requests in the ensuing days.
The ACLU argues that if Iraq won’t take the deportees back, then they must be released in the U.S. ACLU lawyers cite a 2001 Supreme Court case that found migrants generally can’t be held in immigration detention for longer than six months unless there is a likelihood of return.
Some of those the government wants to deport have murder, rape and drug trafficking convictions on their records.
Mr. Vaughan said ICE may be able to justify keeping some of the Iraqis locked up on the basis of national security concerns, which is one exception the 2001 Supreme Court case allows. She also said that if the government announces sanctions, then it could argue that Iraq will soon change its policy thus justifying detention in the meantime.
But she said the episode should serve as an invitation to Congress to step in and change the law to allow for more flexibility in detention.
In Michigan, where the ACLU’s case is being fought, things have turned particularly contentious, with the plaintiffs accusing Mr. Barnanke and another government official of lying in court documents and testimony about the deal with Iraq.
The ACLU asked the judge to slap the officials with sanctions.
“More than 100 human beings remain behind bars as a direct result of the government’s misconduct. They should be released, the record cleansed of the government’s falsehoods, and petitioners reimbursed for the many months of work it has taken to uncover the truth,” the ACLU lawyers wrote.
The government has yet to file a formal response, and the Justice Department declined to comment.