By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Tuesday ordered the Trump administration to release more than 100 Iraqis it detained longer than six months while seeking to deport them, saying the government acted "ignobly" and made "demonstrably false" statements in the case.
Judge Mark Goldsmith of the Eastern District of Michigan sharply criticized the government for dragging its feet in following court orders and making untrue statements about Iraqi willingness to repatriate its citizens deported from the United States.
"The government has acted ignobly in this case, by failing to comply with court orders, submitting demonstrably false declarations of Government officials, and otherwise violating its litigation obligations," Goldsmith wrote. "Families have been shattered."
Goldsmith also said he was taking the rare step of imposing sanctions on the government for its behaviour, though he said he would formally address that in a separate order.
The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
"Today's decision is about accountability," said Miriam Aukerman, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, in a statement on the group's website. The ACLU represented the Iraqis in the case.
In 2017 the Trump administration detained the Iraqis as part of a broad effort to ramp up immigration enforcement and deportations across the country.
The Iraqis, who had been ordered deported years or decades ago because of criminal offences but had been allowed to live in the United States, must be released within 30 days, unless the Trump administration can show a strong reason to detain them or can deport them in that time, Goldsmith ruled. One Iraqi man had been detained since January 2017, he said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials managed to deport eight Iraqis in April 2017, but the Iraqi government backed out of further attempts to repatriate its citizens, according to government documents submitted to the court and cited in Goldsmith's order.
Despite heavy lobbying by American diplomats in Baghdad, by July 2017 ICE officials concluded that Iraq was "among the most recalcitrant countries" when it comes to accepting its deported nationals, and tried to secure visa sanctions against Iraq.
Despite these developments, an ICE official signed a declaration in the court case on July 20, 2017 claiming that Iraq had agreed to accept deportees. Goldsmith ultimately found statements by U.S. officials that Iraq was willing to accept deportees to be unconvincing.
"There does not appear to be a clear way forward to repatriate Iraqi nationals at this time," he wrote.
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Tom Brown)