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Judge backs release of Iraqi immigrants

A federal judge has ruled that Iraqi immigrants detained by immigration authorities for more than six months, including an Albuquerque man, must be released Feb. 2 unless the government successfully objects with strong evidence showing risk of danger or fleeing.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Goldsmith’s ruling Wednesday in Detroit affects more than 1,400 Iraqis swept up in immigration raids starting in March 2017. Most, but not all, of the immigrants have some sort of criminal record, ranging from minor infractions to felonies, some of them decades old.

Brenda Sisneros, left, and her husband, Abbas Al-Sokaini, who was arrested in June 2017 by federal immigration police.

Brenda Sisneros, left, and her husband, Abbas Al-Sokaini, who was arrested in June 2017 by federal immigration police. (Courtesy of Sandi Mendoza)

 

The ruling also affects longtime Albuquerque resident Abbas Al-Sokaini, who has been in custody since June. He was convicted of drug possession in 2000 and sentenced to three years’ probation. His wife of 13 years, Brenda Sisneros, and their family live in Albuquerque.

“This case is a win for him unless the government shows that he is either a danger to the community or a flight risk,” said Kathy Love, staff attorney with the ACLU of New Mexico.

While Al-Sokaini and the other immigrants all have had active deportation orders, Iraq has historically not accepted deportees, meaning the immigrants could not be sent back.

That changed in early 2017 when Iraq agreed to begin accepting deportees in exchange for being taken off the list of countries on President Donald Trump’s travel ban. The change triggered the federal Immigration Customs and Enforcement roundups of immigrants with criminal records, including the Iraqis.

Almost all of the immigrants taken in those raids have been detained in ICE centers since then, prompting a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, including the New Mexico chapter.

They argued – and the court agreed – that the immigrants can’t be indefinitely detained pending the outcome of the lawsuit or the resolution of their cases.

“Our Nation has a long history of resisting unreasonable governmental restraints. In the present circumstances, allowing bond hearings for those who have been subjected to prolonged detention is in keeping with the core value of liberty our Constitution was designed to protect,” Goldsmith wrote in his opinion.

Plus, he wrote, it isn’t clear that Iraq is indeed willing to take in deportees, despite assurance from top Trump administration officials.

So Goldsmith ordered the release of any of the Iraqi immigrants after six months of detention unless the government files can prove objections in individual cases.

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