Christians issue plea for Iraqi criminals
Say Chaldeans face persecution, death
They are convicted murderers, rapists, burglars and drug traffickers whom the Trump administration is trying to kick out of the country — yet a massive backlash has formed, with activists saying if the people are sent back home they face persecution and potentially death at the hands of a hostile populace and an uncaring government.
The people in question are nearly 200 Iraqis who are either illegal immigrants or who came to the U.S. legally, then committed crimes that make them deportable.
But most of them are Chaldean Christians, which makes their removal a thorny question.
“Sending Christians back to Iraq, in this case Baghdad, is effectively a death sentence,” said Steve Oshana, executive director of A Demand for Action, which advocates for victims of what the U.S. government has labeled a genocide, at the hands of the Islamic State, of Chaldeans and other religious minorities.
The situation has drawn attention of immigrant rights groups and members of Congress, and a few of the Iraqis have even challenged their deportations in federal court. A court hearing is slated for Wednesday in the Eastern District of Michigan.
For years, they had little fear of being deported. Iraq was one of about two dozen countries that generally refused to issue travel documents allowing the U.S. to send people back.
That all changed in March when President Trump won an agreement for better cooperation from Iraq in exchange for dropping the country from his extreme vetting target list.
Now, with Iraq accepting deportees again, officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement went out to pick up many of the people they had to release over the years.
Some 199 Iraqi nationals have been arrested since May, including 114 in the Detroit area in one weekend this month.
Nearly all of those picked up have criminal records that include homicide and sexual assault. Two of those detained have no convictions but face pending criminal charges for drug trafficking and multiple arrests for domestic violence, and one person has no criminal record but has been ordered deported.
“The operation in this region was specifically conducted to address the very real public safety threat represented by the criminal aliens arrested,” said Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “The vast majority of those arrested in the Detroit metropolitan area have very serious felony convictions, multiple felony convictions in many cases.”
Immigrant rights advocates usually say that is exactly the kind of person they want ICE to target — criminals — rather than rank-and-file illegal immigrants with cleaner records.
But the Chaldeans are turning that argument on its head.
A group of evangelical church leaders fired off a letter Monday to Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly expressing “grave concern” about the deportation of Christians.
“We do not minimize the serious criminal offenses of which some of these individuals have been convicted; it is entirely appropriate that they be punished for their offenses,” the leaders of the Evangelical Immigration Table wrote. “However, having served their sentences, we must seriously consider whether it is just to deport a person who poses little risk to the American public to a situation where they are likely to experience significant harm because of their faith.”
Members of Congress have become involved and demanded a freeze on deportations.
The lawmakers, a group of Democrats from Michigan, also asked for a copy of the agreement that the U.S. worked out with Iraq on repatriations. They are hoping to learn what sorts of protections the Middle Eastern nation has put into place.
U.S. officials declined to provide a copy of the agreement to The Washington Times, saying it needed to be requested through cumbersome openrecords laws. The Times has filed such a request.
Mr. Oshana said the situation for Christians in Iraq has grown dire over the past 15 years. Their numbers have dropped from 1.3 million to 250,000, and 99 churches have been bombed.
“The Iraqi government has not done a damn thing about it. This is a pattern of persecution that our people have faced,” he said. He said that calls into question any assurances the Iraqi government has given the U.S. about protecting deportees.
Mr. Oshana said the arrests in Detroit this month were particularly upsetting because they were on the three-year anniversary of the Islamic State’s attack on Mosul, which was home to many Chaldeans but which he said was abandoned by Iraq’s troops.
“To me, the fact that that happened [on the anniversary] was an indication of sort of how little cultural understanding people have — cultural sensitivity — to the trauma and victimization our people have incurred,” he said. “To me, things like that are always a sign that OK, clearly nobody was sort of aware enough of that reality to maybe do it the week after.”
The Iraqi Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The Times also requested more detailed information on the criminal convictions amassed by the targets, but ICE did not provide it.
In briefs filed Monday, the Trump administration argued that the case doesn’t belong in court because the law leaves these kinds of deportation decisions to the executive branch. The Justice Department said the Iraqis can ask for their cases to be reheard by the board of immigration appeals, where they can argue that conditions in Iraq have changed.
“The removal orders have been in place for years, and it was not until the decision to execute the orders and remove petitioners that they sought relief based on changed conditions in Iraq,” the government said.
Eight Iraqis have already been deported since March.
Iraq is one of nearly two dozen countries that made a habit of thwarting deportations under the Obama administration. Mr. Trump has cut that list to 12.
The worst offenders remain Cuba and China. As of last year, the U.S. was trying to deport some 35,000 Cubans with criminal records, while the number of criminal migrants awaiting deportation to China stood at 1,900.
What to do with those who can’t be returned is a tricky question. They are supposed to be under supervision, but the criminals often commit more crimes. In one infamous case, Haiti refused deportation of a man released after serving a sentence for attempted murder. Within months, he killed a young woman in Connecticut after a dispute with her boyfriend.
Mr. Oshana said the Iraqis in these cases have served their time and been rehabilitated. He said many of them grew up in the U.S. and don’t have family in Iraq, nor do they speak Arabic. He said lawmakers in Washington need to find a long-term solution that keeps them in the U.S. — a solution, he said, that should include a path to citizenship.
SPEAKING OUT: Nidal Zawaideh joined hundreds of others on Friday in downtown Detroit to protest the recent arrests of 114 Iraqi nationals, primarily Chaldean immigrants.
Astevana Shaya, 28, attends a protest against the arrests of Chaldean Christians in Michigan by U.S. immigration officials, who want to deport them to Iraq.