Up to 100 Iraqis, mostly Christians but also some Muslims, were arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Detroit on Sunday. They were rounded up outside churches and restaurants. Parents, siblings, and loved ones were separated from their families and now face deportation to Iraq.
Afterward, families were understandably in shock. Here’s what we know about those caught up in the sweep and what led to their arrest…
1. They’re from Iraq, but America has been their home for decades.
Many of those affected by the immigration sweep belong to Iraq’s Chaldean minority—one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. The Christian population in Iraq once numbered well over a million people, but it fell dramatically as many fled due to the U.S. invasion, sectarian war, and the rise of ISIS. Both the Obama and Trump administrations recognize Iraqi Christians as victims of genocide.
But those rounded up in Detroit are not recent arrivals to the U.S. Many came to the States to escape Saddam Hussein’s rule and have lived here for decades—some since they were toddlers.
They didn’t come here illegally, either. According to Nathan Kalasho, who runs a charter school serving many of the families affected by this roundup, “These are people who mainly came on visas or green cards.”
Now they face deportation to a country they barely know—a country where they don’t have any network or community to rely on. “A lot of these people only know Americans,” Kalasho told the Detroit Free Press.
2. Yes, they have a criminal record. No, that’s not the whole story.
ICE defended the immigration sweep, saying the individuals they targeted have criminal records which include, among other things, murder and drug trafficking.
The government has yet to provide further details. But according to Kalasho, “Some of the convictions were petty.”
How petty? According to Fox 2 Detroit, one man’s crime was renting a car and letting someone else drive it. “It’s the first time [this law has] been enforced in almost 50 years,” his lawyer said. Another faces deportation because he was caught with marijuana more than two decades ago.
However, some of the crimes are more serious. Yesterday, Christianity Today shared the story of Nahidh Shaou, who left Iraq when he was five years old and later served in the U.S. military, until he was honorably discharged for PTSD. “Soon after,” the article notes, “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.” Shaou recently completed his sentence and faces deportation to a country he can barely remember.
“These people have paid their debt to society,” Kalasho insists. “They weren’t fugitive criminals.”
So why are they being rounded up now, years later? The answer lies in the revised travel ban issued by President Trump last March.
3. Despite being stuck in the courts, the travel ban opened the door to their deportation.
When President Trump issued his second executive order on refugees and immigration, it contained a crucial difference from the original: Iraq was no longer on the list of targeted countries.
The change came after careful negotiation between Iraqi and U.S. officials. But there was a catch: in order to get off the banned list, Iraq’s government had to agree to let the U.S. deport Iraqi citizens with criminal records. That agreement stands, even though President Trump’s order is currently tied up in the courts.
As a result, as many as 1,400 Iraqi nationals could be forced to leave the country they call home. Many fear for their lives if they are sent back, believing Iraq is no longer safe for Christians. While Christianity hasn’t disappeared from Iraq—not by any means—Christians who remain face unique hardships. Many were driven from their homes by ISIS. Even in liberated towns like Batnaya, a few minutes north of Mosul, families haven’t been able to return yet. And there is no guarantee that their difficulties will end once ISIS is defeated.
It’s hard enough for somebody who has a lifetime of experience navigating how to be a Christian in Iraq. But most of those facing deportation have no such experience. They don’t have a support network in Iraq. They don’t have homes or families to return to. They don’t even have IDs. Everything they know is in America.
Both on the campaign trail and since taking office, President Trump has repeatedly promised to protect persecuted Christians of the Middle East. He defended his refugee policy by saying he wanted to prioritize Christians over other vulnerable groups. “Everybody was persecuted,” he said in January. “[ISIS] were chopping off the heads of everybody, but more so the Christians. And I thought it was very, very unfair. So we are going to help them.”
But for many Iraqi Christians who already found refuge in the U.S., the president’s order could have the opposite effect.
Help persecuted minorities in Iraq rebuild.
As with almost every story, this one defies a simple narrative.
Those facing deportation do have criminal records, though some of the crimes were far less serious than others.
Christians are a persecuted minority in Iraq, but they’re not the only group we should care about, and their story is not defined by persecution alone.
The rule of law is important here, but so is mercy.
Immigration and deportation are complex matters. But we must never reduce them to mere “politics” or an “issue.” They are about people—in this case, people who’ve put down deep roots and made new lives for themselves. They’re about families who face being torn apart. And they’re about a responsibility we have to stand with vulnerable minorities in and from the Middle East.