A state of limbo is about to lift for hundreds of Iraqis in the United States. The government tried to deport them after they committed crimes, but Iraq wouldn’t take them back.
Now some of them are headed home – and, quite possibly, into danger.
Trump administration strikes a deal with Iraq
As part of the negotiations surrounding the most recent Trump executive order on immigration, Iraq came off the list of countries whose citizens are barred from entering the U.S.
It was widely reported that’s because Iraq agreed to increase cooperation with the U.S., and share more information about its citizens.
A lesser-known aspect of that deal: Iraq agreed to start accepting deportees from the U.S. – something it had refused to do for many years.
Bad timing for one Michigan attorney and his Iraqi client
Brad Maze found out about Iraq’s change of heart through a court filing he made on behalf of an Iraqi national. Maze is an immigration attorney in metro Detroit, home to about 175,000 Iraqis.
Immigration agents had picked up one of his clients after a probation violation, and held him in immigration detention for more than six months. Too long, according to the law.
“And so we filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Michigan to contest his detention – that either immigration must release him or remove him,” Maze says.
Maze’s client already had what’s called a final order of removal. But because his client was an Iraqi national, Maze called the U.S. government’s bluff.
“We assumed that the government of Iraq would not be able to issue a travel document, because they haven’t in the past," Maze said.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, the government filed a response that revealed a major change for Iraqis with deportation orders:
“Iraq was specifically removed from the list of countries affected by the Executive Order based on its agreement to facilitate repatriation of Iraqi nationals subject to removal orders,” the response read.
The client remains in detention, awaiting a flight to Iraq.
Defenders of the change: It’s about time
Jessica Vaughn credits President Trump with quick progress on an issue that previous administrations had simply failed to fix. She’s with the Center for Immigration Studies.
“This is one of the first instances where the Trump administration had the opportunity to make progress on this … issue of recalcitrant countries, and actually succeed in getting a country to change its practices on this issue,” says Vaughn.
“And it tells me that when the U.S. is able to identify a point of leverage with another country, we can use this to change their practices on this important issue. “
Vaughn says all the Iraqis under deportation orders had an opportunity in immigration court to make their case for staying in the U.S.
“And if they cannot do that, then they really should be returned home, or be given the opportunity to be returned to another country,” Vaughn says.
But Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation, says that’s turning a blind eye to what may happen to the deportees once they return “home.”
Manna estimates about 300 ethnic Chaldean Catholics in Michigan alone are at risk of deportation to a country where their faith makes them a target.
“Sending them back would be a death sentence for them,” he says.
Manna says it’s ironic that Chaldeans in Macomb County overwhelmingly supported Trump in the presidential election “because they were so frustrated by the previous policies, of the way Christians were being treated under the Obama administration.”
Harsh realities for some who have been in the U.S. for decades
It’s not just Iraqi Chaldeans facing deportation who are fearful.
Kam, a 41-year old business owner, is Kurdish. He lives in southeast Michigan with his U.S.-born wife, Caroline, and their three children. We’re not using the family’s last name because they're worried that speaking out could harm his case.
Kam came to the U.S. in 1993 as a teenager, with his parents, eight sisters, and a brother. All twelve of them fled their northern Iraq home on foot.
He’s been in this country twice as long as he lived in the Middle East. But he never became a U.S. citizen.
“Basically, this has been my home and my culture and my life,” he says, sitting on a sofa in his living room after serving black tea and sweets.
In 2011, he was convicted on a felony marijuana delivery charge. It was a deportable offense, but Iraq refused to issue him a passport. So he got to go back to his life -- running the collision shop he owns, raising his kids, and checking in regularly with immigration.
Then he got a call from his lawyer, “saying so-called Iraqi government made some kind of deal as far as lifting the travel ban on Iraq.”
He wipes tears from his eyes, his wife at his side.
"Should we tell the kids they may lose their dad?"
Kam’s sister Sarah sits on a sofa across from him. She’s terrified he will be targeted in Iraq as an ethnic minority.
Both Sarah and another one of her sisters worked as interpreters for the U.S. government about a decade ago, and she fears that could put him in danger as well.
“To me, as a citizen of this country, I felt that I had the duty to serve,” she says. “And now I look at the same government that we risked our lives for, my sister and I, try to send my brother back there.…” She trails off.
It’s not clear how quickly the U.S. will move on the deportations. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would only confirm that the first flight leaves in April.
Kam and Caroline don’t know what they’ll tell the kids. Caroline says she hasn’t told them anything about what’s going on.
“Do I bring them to the appointment so that he can say goodbye, or do I keep pretending nothing’s happening, and then they don’t get to say goodbye?” Caroline asks.
They only have a few days to figure it out. Kam’s appointment with ICE is next Tuesday.