SAN DIEGO — For several months, 20 Iraqi Chaldean Catholics who fled the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) to seek refuge in the United States have been sitting in San Diego’s Otay detention center.
No one in the local Chaldean community knows why they have been held so long or when they will be released. And according to critics, their continuing detention highlights the Obama administration’s failure to respond sufficiently to the collective plight of such Christians, who are suffering persecution because of their faith.
The “Chaldean 20” are refugees who arrived at the U.S.-Mexican border to request asylum via an “underground railroad” set up by Mark Arabo, a U.S.-born Chaldean Catholic businessman, and his Minority Humanitarian Foundation.
“These are Christians who have escaped death, but now they have been held for over four months with no sign of their release coming, and we haven’t received a reason for why,” Arabo said. He said they have held protests and reached out to the State Department, members of Congress and the White House, asking for their immediate release.
Right now, there is no sign that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials will be releasing them anytime soon.
“These are Christians, they have family members who are American citizens, and we have verified their identity,” Arabo said. “If they were a threat to national security, we’d say, ‘Send them back,’ but we know that they are not, and [ICE] hasn’t said that they are. They just say that they don’t have enough resources and manpower.”
For Arabo, the prolonged detention of the Chaldeans, who fled their homes and property when Islamic State militants overran Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in June 2014, is another deep frustration with the federal government’s attitude toward the genocide faced by Christians in Iraq.
“We built this underground railroad, where we are extracting Christians from Iraq, Syria and neighboring nations, and giving them a safe home, and these 20 [Chaldeans] are an example of that,” he said. “They have escaped ISIS and death, only to be imprisoned by our broken immigration system.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in San Diego told the Register that they were unable to comment on individual cases. In a statement emailed to the Register, they said the Department of Homeland Security alone makes the decision to detain individuals while immigration proceedings are pending, “following a comprehensive review of each case.”
“In making such determinations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) weighs a variety of factors, including the person’s conviction record, immigration history, ties to the community, risk of flight and whether he or she poses a potential threat to public safety.”
It added, “The decision to keep someone in ICE custody is based solely on considerations related to the case.”
“Given ICE’s limited detention resources and the agency’s policy to focus on holding those who are public-safety threats and/or flight risks, the vast majority of foreign nationals arrested by ICE are, in fact, released under supervision, while their cases are pending before [the immigration court].”
The American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego is monitoring the situation. Bardis Vakili, a senior staff attorney, said Chaldeans, unlike refugee groups such as Somalis, “historically don’t have a problem” proving to ICE they are not a risk.
“It is certainly odd and outside best practice to detain the Chaldeans this long,” he said.
Vakili said it is legal for refugees to request asylum at points of entry to the U.S., which is what Chaldean refugees have typically done at the Mexican border. It would be illegal if they were smuggled beyond the points of entry, but “they would have no reason” not to declare themselves as asylum seekers at the border.
But Vakili said that the detention of Chaldeans should have lasted either “days or weeks,” not months.
“When people meet these requirements for standards of release, that’s not a huge processing issue,” he said. “There is very little processing required for these people to be released.”
Lackluster Response to ‘Genocide’
Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced the persecution, torture and murder of Middle-Eastern Christians. During his most recent trip to South America, the Holy Father warned that the world was experiencing a “third world war, waged piecemeal.”
“A form of genocide is taking place, and it must end,” he said.
However, advocates for Christians in the Middle East say the U.S. is not treating the situation as a genocide.
Juliana Taimoorazy, president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC), said the U.S. government’s response has been nowhere near proportionate to the devastation inflicted by ISIS on Iraqi Christians, most of whom are ethnic Assyrians and lost their homes and possessions as the price of keeping their faith.
“I’m very critical of the United States government for allowing more Muslims than Christians to this country, because they really should pay closer attention to the plight of these refugees who have been persecuted overseas,” said Taimoorazy, an Assyrian Catholic who fled Iran as a refugee in the late 1980s and found asylum in the United States.
“But, again, everything should be done legally.”
Taimoorazy said her organization delved into the refugee numbers coming from the office of the United Nations’ high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) and the U.S. Department of State. While the overall numbers of refugees from Iraq were higher, the percentage of Christian refugees from Iraq dropped during the Obama administration, compared to the level during the preceding Bush administration.
According to the data compiled by ICRC, the U.S. admitted 25,014 refugees from Iraq from the start of 2014 to June 30, 2015. Even though ISIS swept into Mosul and the Nineveh Plain — Iraq's Christian heartland — in June 2014, during this 18-month period, only 21% of Iraqi refugees (more than 5,000) coming to the U.S. were Christian, while more than 79% were Muslim. The data shows that, in 2007, when Christians were caught in the cross fire of Iraq’s civil war, close to 57% of Iraqi refugees coming to the U.S. were Christian, while more than 40% were Muslim. But that year, only 2,631 refugees were admitted from Iraq.
When it comes to the Syrian refugee crisis, ICRC found 943 refugees from Syria had been admitted between 2014 and June 30 of this year. But more than nine out of 10 of them were Muslim, while fewer than 4% of refugees were Christian.
Taimoorazy said the refugee process should be reformed. She said Assyrian Christians she has spoken with have already suffered enormous violence and trauma, with a great need for PTSD treatment. But the wounds of refugees are being compounded by family separation, with families seeing some go to Europe, others to the U.S. and others to Australia.
“There’s a lack of empathy for keeping families together,” she said. “Is it not enough that they have suffered there, and now they have to suffer in diaspora in a completely different world of culture and language, with the family unit broken on top of that?”
More attention must also be paid to the Christian Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), Taimoorazy added, “as their suffering continues tremendously, especially during the unbearable summer temperatures.”
The Register made repeated attempts to speak with the U.S. State Department, but received no response by deadline.
Syria: Potential Christian Bloodbath
Andrew Doran, special policy adviser to In Defense of Christians, an advocacy group for Middle-Eastern Christians, said that while Christians are displaced in Iraq, “very few” face the kind of immediate mortal danger they faced from ISIS last June. Doran, who recently visited Iraqi Kurdistan, where the majority of Iraq’s Christian remnant has taken refuge, noted that fighting in northern Iraq was largely static, with the Kurds defending their positions behind trenches and earthworks reminiscent of World War I.
However, fighting in Syria is much more fluid, and Christians there are concentrated in urban areas, such as Aleppo, Homs and Damascus.
“Most of these Christians are going to be in immediate mortal danger,” he said, contending the State Department is not prepared to respond to the potential fall of Syria’s embattled president, Bashar Assad.
Doran believes the situation could result in a “bloodbath” of Christians, trying to flee to the coast, such as Latakia province, to escape an onslaught of Islamist rebel groups.
“Many would just not make it,” he said, adding that the West is not prepared to respond to such a crisis.
Doran said that while some in the West have called for the West to facilitate massive immigration of Christians from the Middle East, he added that religious and political leaders in the Middle East have warned that this would play into ISIS’ hands and be disastrous for the region’s future peace, prosperity and stability. Instead, these leaders have called on the West for support to help them stay in the region and be protected.
But when it comes to Christian refugees who believe they have no choice but to leave, Doran said that the administration’s demonstrated willingness to protect Yazidis does not appear to extend toward the Christians. Despite public servants in the State Department who have been trying to push for action, overall, he said, “It’s not an impressive response.”
“It has been deliberate even at times when immediate action is called for,” he said. “But ISIS doesn’t wait.”
Arabo wants the U.S. to be a safe haven for his fellow Chaldean Catholics until Iraq is stable for those who choose to return and rebuild their ancestral homeland.
“There is no hope for Christianity in Iraq right now. In the future, there will be, but when we reform the constitution and make sure Iraq is an inclusive country for Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians alike,” he said. “But without equal protection and equal rights, they can’t live in a hell where they are being slaughtered, beheaded and raped.
“We can rebuild Iraq; we can rebuild Christianity in the Middle East, from the outside, but not from the inside.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.