When more than 100 Iraqi Chaldean Christians in Michigan were arrested and threatened with immediate deportation the weekend of June 10, the Trump administration’s oft-repeated promises to protect Christians around the world rang not just darkly hollow but demonstrably false. After all, local activists argued, deporting Christians back to the war zones of Iraq was tantamount to a death sentence.
On Monday night, a federal judge in Detroit halted the deportation of not only those Iraqi Chaldean Christians in Michigan but also more than 1,400 Iraqis nationwide.
Judge Mark A. Goldsmith granted a preliminary injunction request made by the Iraqi nationals’ attorneys, allowing the Iraqis to challenge their deportation in federal court. The ruling comes on the heels of a joint emergency petition filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, CODE Legal Aid, and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center on behalf of those arrested.
In his decision, Goldsmith wrote that the case involved "extraordinary circumstances,” noting that many of the immigrants could face physical harm if they returned to Iraq. “Each petitioner faces the risk of torture or death on the basis of residence in America and publicized criminal records. Many will also face persecution as a result of a particular religious affiliation," said the judge, an Obama appointee.
“This ruling continues to block the government from recklessly sending these individuals into harm’s way,” said Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, in a statement. “The court’s action could literally save lives.”
Approximately 230 Iraqis are currently in custody. The remaining 1,200 are not jailed but could be arrested at any time, reported CBS News.
In June, Goldsmith issued a temporary order that blocked the removal of the Iraqis. That order was set to expire on Monday night, and the ruling was made just hours before then.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which called for the deportations in the first place, and the US Justice Department did not immediately respond to Monday’s ruling. But lawyers at earlier court hearings signaled that an appeal was likely if Goldsmith granted an injunction, according to CBS News.
Goldsmith’s ruling gives the arrested immigrants an opportunity to take their cases before federal immigration judges. They’ll argue that they face mortal danger if they are forced to return to Iraq.
Christians do face a unique risk in Iraq. The Trump administration knows that.
Just in May, Vice President Mike Pence told the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians that “[p]rotecting and promoting religious freedom is a foreign policy priority of the Trump administration.” Protecting Christians specifically, he added, was of enormous importance. “The suffering of Christians in the Middle East has stirred Americans to action, and it brings me here today,” he said.
So it was all the more shocking when more than 100 Chaldean Iraqi Christians were arrested in the Detroit metro area by ICE agents the weekend of June 10, all of whom are now still threatened with deportation — back to a country where they will be in mortal danger exactly because of who they are and how they worship, unless they can prove that danger before an immigration judge.
“Not only is it immoral to send people to a country where they are likely to be violently persecuted, it expressly violates United States and international law and treaties,” Kary Moss, the executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, told the Huffington Post soon after the arrests. “Our immigration policy shouldn’t amount to a death sentence for anyone.”
When news of the arrests reached the community, church leaders and laypeople alike were angry and dismayed — and protesters took to the streets to demand their family members be returned.
"Chaldeans have been targeted by ISIS and subjected to genocide, as have other religious minorities,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who is herself a Chaldean Catholic of Assyrian descent, in a statement. “Their deportation represents a death sentence should they be deported to Iraq or Syria.”
In the days after the arrests, the community was reeling. “Yesterday was a very strange and painful day for our community in America,” Bishop Francis Kalabat of the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle of Detroit said in a statement on June 13. “There is a lot of confusion, and anger.”
For its part, ICE explained that it was basically just following orders:
As part of ICE's efforts to process the backlog of these individuals, the agency recently arrested a number of Iraqi nationals, all of whom had criminal convictions for crimes including homicide, rape, aggravated assault, kidnapping, burglary, drug trafficking, robbery, sex assault, weapons violations and other offenses. Each of these individuals received full and fair immigration proceedings, after which a federal immigration judge found them ineligible for any form of relief under U.S. law and ordered them removed.
But prior to the Trump administration, even though these Iraqi nationals were theoretically eligible for deportation, they had essentially been allowed to remain in the country with the condition that they check in regularly with immigration officials and stay out of trouble with the law. They were not seen as a priority.
"My dad is Christian, and Donald Trump is sending him back to a place that is not safe whatsoever," Cynthia Barash, whose father was caught up in the sweep, told CNN. Moayad, her father, had been charged with a marijuana-related crime decades ago. Most of those arrested have lived in the United States for many years.
Moayad, and others like him, have fallen victim to a deal made between Donald Trump and the government of Iraq. Iraq was initially included in Trump’s travel ban back in January. The country was subsequently removed, following negotiations that paved the way for the country to receive back Iraqi nationals who had run afoul of the law.
But most of the Iraqis in question have already served time for the crimes committed, sometimes decades ago. “If the offenses they committed have already been 'paid for' by serving an appropriate sentence,” Rep. Eshoo said in her statement, “facing a death sentence via deportation is disproportionate and unjust."
Who are the Chaldeans?
Chaldeans are Catholics from Iraq who speak Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language once widely spoken in the Middle East (it’s sometimes called the language of Jesus) and now only commonly used by perhaps 500,000 people around the world. The Chaldean Community Foundation estimates some 121,000 Chaldeans live in the Detroit area, the largest concentration of Chaldeans outside the Middle East. Some 200,000 more live in other parts of the United States.
While the American branch of the Chaldean community began to build in the early years of the 20th century, it truly swelled after the first Gulf War, when around 30,000 refugees from the community arrived in the US. Under Saddam Hussein, life became much more difficult for Chaldeans in Iraq.
And in recent years, what had been a difficult life turned impossible. When ISIS took over Nineveh province, and the city of Mosul specifically, in June 2014, Christians fled in ever greater numbers. Staying was literally no longer an option.
“These are Christians that will be slaughtered as they arrive in Iraq. It's inhuman, it's unfathomable, it's unbelievable and we will file a federal lawsuit asking for a stay," Mike Arabo, president of the Minority Humanitarian Foundation, which aids victims of ISIS, told CNN.
“We're not treated like people. We're treated like objects.”
"These people have been declared victims of genocide by both the Obama administration and the current administration," Nathan Kalasho, the director of an area charter school largely populated by Chaldean children, told the Detroit Free Press.
Indeed, in May 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry said as much. “In my judgment,” he said, “Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims.”
“It's not fair," Lily Butris, age 12, whose father, Haydar, had been caught up in the raid and was now facing possible deportation, told the Detroit Free Press. "I don't know why they want to rip families apart. This country was built on immigrants. ... We're not treated like people. We're treated like objects. That's not OK.”
"Do you know how hard it is to have your father, who means everything to you, just taken away from you, having that scared feeling you're never going to see him again?" Butris asked.
Meanwhile, protesters gathered outside an immigration detention center in downtown Detroit with no idea when, or if, they would be reunited with their family members.
More and more Chaldeans showing up to protest detainmentPosted by WXYZ-TV Channel 7 on Sunday, June 11, 2017
“I do not believe that any president in our lifetimes has done so much that has benefited the Christian community in such a short timespan than Donald Trump,” Jerry Falwell Jr. told a crowd at the Liberty University commencement in May.
He might need to revise that statement.