When the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado heard that Iraqi detainees being held inside Aurora’s immigrant detention center – a 1,500-bed facility run by the private prison company GEO Group – were being singled out and harassed by the facility’s guards, ACLU attorneys and staff members went to investigate. What they learned from two of the men, France Anwar Elias and Kamran Mallak, whom they interviewed over several trips in August, deeply concerned them.
Both men reported that they and roughly twenty other Iraqi detainees inside the Aurora facility are being singled out by both ICE agents and private security guards and pressured to self-deport, and are regularly being called derogatory names like “camel jockey,” “rag head” and “terrorist.”
In declarations obtained by the ACLU, Elias and Mallak describe what they and many other Iraqi detainees caught up in immigration proceedings would face if they returned to Iraq, including torture and/or death for having become “Americanized” or for being part of minority ethnic groups, like the Kurds, or religious groups, like Christians, in a country that is still destabilized and reeling from more than a decade of war.
Previously, the Iraqi government did not allow the return of Iraqi nationals that the United States wanted to deport for immigration reasons. But in March, as President Trump was rolling out the second version of his “travel ban,” he struck a deal with Iraq in which the country would be excluded from the list of restricted countries in return for Iraq accepting deportees from the U.S.
By May, ICE was rounding up hundreds of Iraqis around the country, including over a hundred in Michigan, who had previously received removal orders – some going as far back as twenty years.
Following the mass arrests, the ACLU stepped in with a class action lawsuit, arguing that many of the Iraqis would face persecution or death if they were forced to return to their home country. On July 24, a federal judge in Michigan sided with the civil rights nonprofit, staying the removals of approximately 1,400 Iraqi nationals across the United States for ninety days and ordering ICE to turn over key immigration records so that each case could be re-examined.
But now, detainees like Elias and Mallak say that ICE and private security guards are abusing them in retribution for the ACLU’s actions.
According to Elias, a GEO Group supervisor told the Iraqi detainees that the only reason they hadn’t been deported yet was because of the ACLU’s lawsuit, but that “the bulk of you will lose your case and still get deported…so what are you doing?”
The implication was that the detainees should voluntarily sign off on their deportations.
Rebecca Wallace, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Colorado, says that several of the men she’s talked to at the Aurora facility are going through crises of spirit. “They are considering being voluntarily deported back to Iraq even though they face near certain death, torture or incarceration,” she says. That includes a man she spoke to who is, as Wallace puts it, “experiencing such emotional torture that he doesn’t know how long he can take it."
According to Elias’s and Mallak’s sworn declarations, they and other Iraqi detainees have been psychologically abused. Before being transferred to Aurora, both men said, they were being held in a facility in Arizona where, on the night of their transfer, they were falsely led to believe that they were being released to their families.
As the men cried and celebrated, ICE guards looked on, waiting hours before telling them that they weren’t actually being released, but instead were being transferred to the GEO Group facility in Aurora.
“Sorry for the misunderstanding,” said one of the guards with a smirk.
In his declaration, Mallak described that moment as feeling like “a knife through the heart.” Elias said that “the sadness was overwhelming.”
The men add that their feelings of despair only increased when, during their flight from Arizona to Colorado, they were shackled and denied liquid, food and bathroom breaks until an ICE supervisor finally ordered that each receive a small bottle of water and what one guard joked was a “nasty-ass cheese sandwich” – four slices of bread with a slice of American cheese.
“I can’t say that we’re surprised to see abusive treatment of detainees,” says Wallace. “We hear stories of abuse at the ACLU all the time. But what does feel unique about this is how consistent the treatment is specifically toward the Iraqis and how it suggests a motivation that ICE is trying to make our clients' lives so miserable that they voluntarily give up their immigration cases and stop fighting Trump's deportation machine."
Wallace adds that private guards with the GEO Group have engaged in much of the same behavior as ICE agents, suggesting “direct lines of communication.” This has included denying some of the men kosher meals so that they could observe a halal diet.
When Westword reached out to the GEO Group for comment, a spokesman issued this statement:
"We strongly refute the allegations made by the ACLU. The Aurora, Colorado, facility has a long-standing record of providing highly rated services in a safe, secure, and humane residential environment while treating all those entrusted to our care with the respect and dignity they deserve."
After obtaining the declarations from Elias and Mallak, the ACLU of Colorado included the statements in affidavits filed in the federal court case that covers all 1,400 Iraqi detainees around the country. Wallace says that the affidavits are being used to support motions that guards not talk to the detainees about their cases or ask them to sign paperwork to self-deport.
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Until their cases are heard, detainees like Elias and Mallak are stuck in limbo.
At the end of his declaration, Elias noted that his family is “losing everything.”
“Without my income, my bills have gone unpaid. The water in the house has been shut off. We expect to face collections proceedings soon. My wife is in the process of selling our home. We plan to use the money from the sale to hire an immigration attorney and pay the bills that remain. Still, I feel I have no other option than to fight against deportation – it’s the fight for my life.”