Despite judicial intervention, Iraqi Christians in the US face uncertain times

A protester fights back tears during a downtown rally November 8, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.

:: Moayad Barash was very young when he travelled from Baghdad to the United States. But he has spent years building a life in America. All four of his children were born and raised here.

After all these years, he never imagined that after almost 38 years, he would be apprehended by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in front of his seven-year-old daughter on a sunny Sunday morning, while driving home from the beach.

Until recently deporting immigrants to countries in which they may face immediate danger or persecution was not condoned by the US government. However, recent crackdown under the Trump administration have led to negotiations between the US and countries like Iraq that changed this landscape for longstanding immigrants.

In a statement on the recent influx of seizures and detentions, ICE said: “Iraq has recently agreed to accept a number of Iraqi nationals subject to orders of removal.”

On the day of Barash’s arrest, his wife and three older daughters discovered a driverless car, where the youngest sister still sat in the backseat, scared and confused. The family didn’t hear from him for three days.

“It makes me feel unsafe in this country,” Barash’s 17-year-old daughter, Angelina, said: “This is where we were born.”

Cluster of seizures

Barash is one of over 1,400 Iraqi nationals facing deportation from the United States, and he is part of a cluster of seizures that took place that Sunday, 11 June 2017.

ICE claims that all of these, around 30 to 40 individuals, had criminal convictions. While the agency claims that these individuals were given fair immigration proceedings, advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union, say otherwise.

Miriam Aukerman is a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, the organization that filed the case to give Iraqi nationals the right to reopen their immigration court cases and prove to a judge that they face grave danger of persecution, torture or death if deported to Iraq.

“They originally were not removed because Iraq would not take them back and it was too dangerous,” Aukerman said, “ICE suddenly, after decades, rounded up hundreds of people and put them in detention centers and was planning to immediately deport them.”

The obvious question was whether the agency had considered the circumstances of these immigrants, particularly those belonging to Iraq’s Chaldean Christian minority and whether they would face the risk of persecution and violence if forced to return. ICE, however, declined to comment.

Safe passage

Mark Arabo, President of the Minority Humanitarian Foundation – which helps provide safe passage and aid to displaced Christian minorities – says that because of persecution by ISIS and other extremist groups, the situation for Christians in Iraq should be considered a modern day genocide.

“We escaped Iraq for a chance at achieving the American dream,” Arabo said, “and we will not give up on that dream despite our people being unethically held behind bars.”

On 24 July, a federal judge in Michigan ruled in favor of blocking the deportation of these Iraqi nationals. While this court victory grants these immigrants the opportunity to appeal their cases, given the current immigration crackdown, it is likely that detainees like Barash have a long and arduous battle ahead.

Even for Iraqi immigrants who jump through every legal hoop, the prospect of being granted citizenship under this administration seems bleak.

Tameem Alkadhi, his father and brothers, faced direct threats from Iraqi extremists because his family had worked with the US military. He came to America as a refugee seven years ago and is married to an American citizen.

After reaching here, Alkadhi meticulously followed every step in the immigration process. Yet, his application has been indefinitely delayed. He claims that the immigration office even said they lost his file, and that no one can give him a straight answer as to why his application process has come to a halt.

Tearing families apart

When the first iteration of Trump’s travel ban was released, it tore Alkadhi’s family apart. Hailing from Iraq, other members of Alkadhi’s family were barred from traveling to the US. And while legal advocates and organizations continue to fight the ban stateside, Alkadhi still fears that he will face deportation, and that his relatives may never obtain the visas they need.

“I feel sad that people of Iraq coming to the US seeking a safe place to live are sent back to danger,” Alkadhi said, “it is not right at all.”

For the dozens of Iraqi nationals with alleged prior offenses, fighting decades-old charges for minor crimes will be a key factor in pleading their cases to avoid the dangers of returning to Iraq. And even if those minor offenses are pardoned, there is no guarantee that ICE will release them from indefinite detention.

According to Aukerman, however, the country has a legal obligation not to send immigrants and refugees back to a place where they might get tortured or killed. “To paint these individuals as disposable because of an offense they committed decades ago is to deny them basic humanity,” Aukerman said.

Almas Shaya, a member of Michigan’s Chaldean community, who are Iraqi Catholics, rally in Detroit Monday, Nov. 8, 2010.

Surma Shamtir, originally from Bagdad, during a demonstration calling on the American and Iraqi governments to protect Iraqi Christians during a downtown rally November 8, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.

Protesters rally outside the federal court just before a hearing to consider a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Iraqi nationals facing deportation, in Detroit, Michigan, US, June 21, 2017.

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