Michigan branch of Civil Liberties Union cites grave danger for Chaldeans forced to return to Iraq
The civil liberties organization filed a brief in a federal court in Michigan Thursday, days after ICE arrested a number of Chaldean Christians in and around Detroit as part of President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to enforce immigration laws.
Church and civic leaders in the Iraqi Christian community have been calling for leniency, and some of them have been pointing out the irony that they supported Trump for president on the grounds that he promised to protect Christians in the Middle East. On Friday, advocates will gather at the Patrick V. McNamara Federal Building in Detroit for a rally in support of the immigrants at risk of deportation. Organizers expect two members of Congress – Sander Levin (D-MI) and Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) – to be among those present.
“Ronald Reagan didn’t deport them, Bill Clinton didn’t deport them, George Bush, Obama, none of them, because the country’s condition, whether it was Saddam Hussein or what happened more recently,” Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation outside Detroit, said in an interview Thursday. “Things have worsened in Iraq; they haven’t gotten better for Christians and other minorities, and the US can take a lot of blame for this. They’re the ones who invaded, created the chaos, including the displacement or more than 1.1 million Christians.”
The ACLU said in its brief that the Iraqi nationals who are being deported, many of whom have lived for decades in the United States, face a “very real probability of persecution, torture or death” if they are sent back to Iraq at this time.
“Although most were ordered removed to Iraq years ago (some for overstaying visas, others based on criminal convictions for which they long ago completed any sentences), the government released them under orders of supervision,” the brief says. “Thus, until recently, Petitioners were living peaceably in the community, reporting regularly to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), and complying with their other conditions of release.”
Then, on Sunday, “with no warning, ICE began arresting and detaining Petitioners on the grounds that Iraq has now agreed to take them back. ICE then transferred most of them to a detention center in Youngstown, Ohio, far from their families and their retained counsel.”
Joseph Kassab, founder and president of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute in West Bloomfield, Mich., explained in an interview that Trump’s list of seven Muslim-majority nations from which immigrants would be barred entry to the United States originally included Iraq. He agreed to remove that country from the list when Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, on March 21 visit to the White House, agreed to reverse a seven-year policy of not issuing travel documents to Iraqi-Americans. That opened the door to Iraq being able to receive deportees from the U.S.
But the ACLU lawsuit argues that potential deportees should be afforded a chance to determine whether “changed country conditions” pose a threat that would give them a right to protection. And Iraq is listed on the U.S. State Department’s Travel Advisory as a country which U.S. citizens should avoid because it is too dangerous.
If it’s unsafe for U.S. citizens, it’s also unsafe for Iraqis who grew up here, many of whom do not speak Arabic and have American mannerisms, advocates argue.
“They will be looked at as being foreigners and westerners and therefore the [Islamist] militias have the right to kidnap them and kill them because that’s what Sharia law calls for,” Kassab said. “In other words they’d be considered as people who might be spies for the Western world, like the United States.”
That is what Nahidh Shaou fears. The 55-year-old Chaldean from Detroit served in the US Army in the early 1980s, but suffered from PTSD and was honorably discharged. Soon after, according to Christianity Today, at the age of 20, he shot and wounded a police officer during a robbery near Detroit and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. He finished his sentence last fall, but was immediately detained by ICE and scheduled to be deported in April.
“He’ll be targeted for his Christian faith, his Chaldean ethnicity, his veteran status—that will be seen as traitorous,” said Tiara Shaya, Shaou’s niece.
A last-minute ruling by the Board of Immigration Appeals granted Shaou’s lawyer a chance to argue that his client should not be returned to Iraq because of the risks of persecution, Foreign Policy reported.
That’s the kind of chance those represented by the ACLU are hoping for.
“U.S. law prohibits the removal of individuals to countries where they would face a likelihood of persecution or torture,” the Union’s brief says. “Yet despite the clear danger that many of these individuals face in Iraq, ICE is attempting to deport them based on outstanding removal orders that do not take account of intervening changed circumstances which should entitle them to protection. For example, many of the Petitioners are Chaldean Christians, who are widely recognized as targets of brutal persecution in Iraq.”
Last year, the US State Department recognized that Christians in Iraq and Syria are being subjected to a “genocide” carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The ACLU petition is a class action suit that would affect more than 100 people, but it focuses on seven petitioners. All of them have criminal records—and thus would be eligible for deportation—but all served their sentences, and some of the crimes are relatively minor. Most of the petitioners, according to the brief, fear being sent to Iraq because of their faith—in most cases Christian, but in two cases because they are Shi’ite Muslims (ISIS is a Sunni movement). One of the petitioners has a visible sign that he is a Christian: a tattoo of a cross. In addition, he has the same name as his father, who was a general in the Iraqi army.
Noting that most of the detainees are Christian, the ACLU pointed out that in 2015, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that “status as a Christian alone entitles [a non- immigrant alien] to withholding of removal, given that there is ‘a clear probability’ that he would be subject to future persecution if returned to contemporary Iraq.”
The Union added: “And conditions for Christians have gotten even worse in the subsequent two years.”
In a statement earlier this week, Bishop Francis Kalabat said that the Chaldean Church based in Detroit has been working with “many agencies to try to stop this bleeding,” including the State Department and members of Congress. The bishop was unavailable for an interview this week, but a spokeswoman said, “We’re just offering Masses and Holy Hours at all our churches.”