In Selected Opinion

By Lolita Brayman – Foreign Policy

The Trump administration has decided to deport Iraqi Christians back to their dangerous homeland, and the timing is more than a little suspicious.

The scene in Detroit’s U.S. District Court on June 21 was buzzing with anger and anxiety. Dozens of Iraqi nationals waited to hear whether their detained relatives, and other members of their Detroit community, would be deported back to Iraq. A rally outside the courtroom brought together hundreds of supporters, who came out with signs that read “Trump/Pence hear us, we voted for you” and “Deporting Christians to Iraq is genocide.”

Earlier in June, one of the largest Iraqi Christian populations in the world outside of Iraq was ambushed by raids conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Officials knocked on front doors, disrupting Sunday breakfasts and preparations to attend church, to arrest approximately 114 people in the greater Detroit area. Some of those arrested are Muslim, but the vast majority belong to Christian communities of either Chaldean or Assyrian ancestry. All those arrested were taken to jail and slated to board the next available flight back to their native Iraq — a country from which they once escaped.

According to immigration officials, ICE officers were simply processing a backlog of some 1,444 Iraqi nationals living in the United States who had at some point in their lives committed a crime. The ICE Detroit field office said each detainee already faced a final removal order from an immigration judge. By executing their deportation, ICE was addressing a security threat.

But the 121,000-strong Chaldean community in Detroit was shocked and outraged. Christians have long been a minority group in Iraq, often brutally persecuted for their religious beliefs. They first arrived in Detroit in the early 20th century due to the appeal of auto industry jobs. The population continued to grow as refugees fled Iraq after the first Gulf War and during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Since 2014 and the rise of the Islamic State, Christians have fled in even greater numbers. Former Secretary of State John Kerry said last year that the Islamic State was engaging in genocide against Christians, and in January, President Donald Trump promised to prioritize the resettlement of Christian refugees from the Middle East. Trump’s assurances of the security of their co-religionists caused many members of the Chaldean community in Detroit to vote for him last November.

Many are now wondering why the Trump administration is suddenly targeting Iraqi Christians for deportation. Most of the detainees were subject to final orders of removal, but the government permitted them to reside in the community under ICE supervision for years, even decades. Many of the detainees were considered to be rehabilitated for their past crimes and productive members of society — so why the sudden change?
One theory is that the White House is deliberately targeting Christians in order to gain an advantage in the upcoming judicial review of President Trump’s most recent executive order known as the “travel ban” or “Muslim ban,” which suspended the entry of foreign nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen into the country because of heightened terrorism risks.

Considering the discriminatory statements made by President Trump during his presidential campaign and the predominately Muslim character of the designated countries listed, several federal courts granted injunctions and temporarily halted the execution of the travel ban. On June 26, however, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear oral arguments on the case in October. In the meantime, the justices revived parts of the ban barring people from the six listed countries who have no relationship to an American person or entity. But the Trump administration requested a Supreme Court review of the case back in March and anticipated a thorough examination of any possible anti-Muslim priorities. Targeting Iraqi Christians with prior removal orders would help the travel ban pass constitutional muster, showing that there was no discriminatory intent against Muslims.

“ICE was intentionally targeting our community,” said Nathan Kalasho, an advocate in Detroit helping the detained Chaldeans obtain legal representation. “The Trump administration is trying to stick to their guns that their roundups of immigrants are based on criminal records and previous deportation orders. But the revised travel ban is tied up in courts, and Christian Iraqis are now collateral damage at another attempt to legitimize the travel ban.”

Kalasho said it’s no coincidence the raids occurred on a Sunday — when ICE officials knew many people could be found in church.

One bitter irony of the raids is that if it weren’t for recent political negotiations between Baghdad and Washington, Iraqi nationals in the country would not be at risk of deportation. Iraq only recently agreed to repatriate citizens. In exchange, the administration dropped Iraq from the original list of countries banned by Trump’s executive order. Previously, Iraq refused to issue travel documents to deported Iraqis, and therefore ICE was not able to execute removal orders.

The other side of the argument is that Trump had no intention to specifically go after Iraqi Christians, but sending people back to a hostile home country is the result of the president’s pledge to curb illegal immigration. In February, the Department of Homeland Security broadened the criteria for who is considered a priority for deportation. Previously, ICE could only target undocumented immigrants who had been convicted of a crime. Now, individuals who have “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense” are deportable. In this specific incident, all of the detainees were ordered removed to Iraq years ago, but not all have a criminal background — some simply overstayed their visas.

ICE is under pressure not only to arrest more people but also to report the statistics of increased enforcement to the American public. In an official announcement, ICE stated that since January, more than 41,000 individuals were arrested — a 37.6 percent increase over the same period in 2016. The arrests of undocumented immigrants with no criminal record also more than doubled in this same time period. There are currently 1,444 Iraqis who have received their final deportation orders — an easy way for ICE to boost its numbers further. Many of these Iraqis are now in hiding, too scared to even show up to work because ICE agents might be waiting for them.
ICE argues that the detainees are hardened criminals. However, attorneys for the Iraqi nationals — a team of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, CODE Legal Aid, and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) — say the crimes are relatively minor and took place years ago, followed by years, and in some cases decades, of law-abiding behavior. One of the petitioners subject to deportation is Jihan Asker, a 41-year-old mother of three children, all U.S. citizens. She has lived in the United States since she was 5. She pled under advisement to misdemeanor fraud in 2003, paid a fine of $150, and served six months’ probation. She has lived in the community — complying with an order of supervision with ICE — since 2008. The lawyers added that even for the petitioners with more serious criminal histories, the conditions in Iraq toward Christians counsel against haste in removing them.

U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith in Detroit issued a stay of removal for the 114 Iraqis until July 6. The judge wrote in his opinion that if the deportation orders were carried out, the petitioners would suffer “irreparable harm” and a “significant chance of loss of life.” This hold also extends to the 1,444 Iraqis nationwide, including people who have not yet been detained but are at risk. By July 6, the judge will decide whether or not the federal court has jurisdiction to hear the case and if the government can pursue deportations of all 1,444 Iraqis at risk nationwide.

Ruby Robinson, an attorney with MIRC, explained that there are several tracks attorneys and advocates are pursuing to protect those at risk of deportation.

“The stay order bought the petitioners some time to file motions to reopen their cases in immigration court, where an immigration judge will decide on the validity of an individual’s persecution claim,” he said.

Most of the outstanding removal orders are decades old and do not take into account changed circumstances in Iraq, including the rise of militant Islamist groups. These recent developments give those detained and slated for deportation a new basis for asylum in the United States. Without giving them the right to present their fears to a judge, the U.S. government is prohibited from removing them to a country where they are more likely than not to face persecution.

Motions to reopen removal cases are time- and resource-intensive applications, Robinson explained. “We are encouraging people to seek their own counsel to file these motions while we wait to see how the federal judge will proceed with the class action lawsuit,” he said.

There’s also a political track — one that involves speaking with policymakers and working with officials in Washington to get some kind of pardon for the Iraqis. The Chaldean Community Foundation has reached out to congressional leaders, and several members of Congress have signed letters to DHS Secretary John Kelly requesting a halt to the deportations. Attorneys also appealed to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to consider pardons for those with state felonies.

No matter the government’s intention, the enforcement of Iraqi deportation orders reflects the consequences of Trump’s policies on immigration. The United States is not only under an obligation to halt any deportations of people who will return to a high likelihood of persecution — the zeal to bolster arrest numbers is straining an already overburdened immigration court system. Much like the travel ban, there has been far too much time spent litigating misguided orders. The administration would be better off hiring more judges to tackle the nearly 600,000 cases pending in immigration courts rather than turning its back on longtime American residents.

Lolita Brayman is a U.S.-based immigration attorney, focusing on refugee and asylum issues. She holds an M.A. in conflict resolution and mediation.
Photo credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

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