Federal Judge Blocks Catholic Chaldeans’ Deportation to Iraq — For Now

The Catholic immigrants, who are recognized as victims of genocide, were swept up in a deal between the U.S. and Iraq allowing deportation in exchange for Iraq’s removal from a travel ban.

A recent rally protesting the Chaldean deportations in the Detroit area
A recent rally protesting the Chaldean deportations in the Detroit area (photo: Courtesy of Nadine Yousif Kalasho )

DETROIT —  Catholic leaders and activists gained a major victory in the courts to stop the deportations of more than 100 Chaldean Catholics to Iraq, where genocide against their community has taken place.

On July 24, a federal judge in Detroit blocked the deportation of 1,400 Iraqi nationals living in the U.S. — including several hundred Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, most of whom are Catholics — in order to allow them time to file new motions appealing the decision in immigration courts. U.S. district court Judge Mark Goldsmith acknowledged the threat of genocide and sectarian killing faced by Iraqis, stating that “those who might be subjected to grave harm and possible death are not cast out of this country before having their day in court.”

Judge Goldsmith noted that 83% of the Iraqis had final deportation orders more than five years old, and 50% had final deportation orders more than 10 years old. Given the “potential lethal harm” that they faced from sectarian and anti-American violence, he ruled the Chaldeans and other Iraqi nationals had 90 days to enter legal motions contesting the final deportation orders in immigration courts and that all Iraqi nationals would be protected from deportation until they exhausted the legal process.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials did not comment on the latest ruling. ICE has detained more than 230 Iraqi nationals for deportation. The case began after ICE arrested 199 Iraqi nationals — including close to 100 Chaldean Catholics in metro Detroit — in Sunday morning raids across the country June 11.

Goldsmith also ordered ICE to provide names and other data on all Iraqi nationals with final deportation orders, so that they may be able to obtain legal counsel and have the opportunity to contest the removals. Nadine Yousif Kalasho, president and director of Code Legal Aid, a nonprofit that worked with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan to challenge the deportations, told the Register their next step is “making sure detainees and non-detainees have legal representation,” particularly through pro-bono attorneys. 

ICE has been fighting to enforce final orders of removal pending against Iraqi nationals living and working in the U.S.

In a previous July 11 statement ICE provided to the Register, Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan stated the Iraqis arrested for final removal from the country pose a “clear public safety threat,” and the vast majority of them are “convicted criminals.”

“The dedicated men and women of ICE will continue to do our sworn duty to enforce our immigration laws and protect the safety and security of Americans,” he said.

 “The criminal history of these aliens includes convictions for homicide, rape, aggravated assault, drug trafficking, sex assault and many other types of offenses,” Homan said in his statement.

The Register twice asked ICE for clarification as to how many Iraqi nationals were guilty of the aforementioned crimes. In both cases, ICE provided no response beyond its initial statement that the orders of removal were the “result of recent negotiations between the U.S. and Iraq” and were part of ICE efforts to process its backlog of individuals with final deportation orders.


ICE’s Description Challenged

Nathan Kalasho, a Chaldean community leader and founder of Keys Academies, Detroit-area charter schools that serve students of Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac heritage, told the Register that the “vast majority” of Chaldeans had committed nonviolent types of offenses, already served their time, and become functioning members of society. He said ICE’s description “couldn’t be further from the truth” and was meant to prejudice the minds of the public against people who face grave threats to their lives if returned to Iraq.

Kalasho added that if they were actually a danger to society they would be in prison or have been removed to another country that would take them.

More than 120,000 Chaldeans reside around the Detroit metro area. Kalasho said the community is tightly knit and was caught off guard by ICE’s raids.

“The majority of those rounded up were Catholics,” he said.

On the one hand, Kalasho explained, the U.S. government has never enforced the deportation of Chaldeans because the Iraqi government has refused to take back any forcibly removed national since 1986. On the other hand, Chaldeans are a group that the U.S. government has recognized since March 17, 2016, as victims of genocide in their ancestral homeland of Iraq.

Kalasho said Chaldeans have Christian tattoos on their bodies, which instantly mark them as Christians. One of those arrested is actually a convert from Islam to Catholicism.

However, he said Iraqi Muslims are also at risk of death if they are sent back because they will be seen — along with the Chaldeans — as “sellouts” and “Western sympathizers.”

Judge Goldsmith in his July 24 ruling agreed with those risks, noting that Iraq’s internal security is deeply concerned about “American espionage” and is known to use techniques the U.S. recognizes as “torture.”  


Enforcing the Law

In March 2017, the U.S. government and Iraq concluded a deal that would remove Iraq from the Trump administration’s list of countries whose people were prohibited from entering the U.S. Part of the deal included Iraq accepting a number of deportees from the U.S.

Then came April, when the government deported eight Iraqis, including one Christian, to Iraq.

Kalasho said there was no doubt that the Chaldeans were deliberately targeted when ICE’s June 11 raids took place on a Sunday, when most Chaldeans were either getting ready to go to church or spending the day with family at home.

Kalasho said Chaldean community leaders believe this was intentional on ICE’s part, because the government needs to bolster its case that its travel ban on nationals from seven countries (now six, due to Iraq’s removal) is not actually targeting Muslims because they “send back Christians, too.”

However, Andrew Arthur, a policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the Iraqis with final removal orders have already had access to provisions of law that would allow them to make a case they had a credible fear of torture, death and persecution that would prohibit their return.

“They’ve gone through the system, they received due process, and had opportunities to apply for forms of relief if any were available to them,” he said.

Because they received final orders of removal, “They were obviously denied [relief].”

“The law requires them to be removed if they’re under a final order of removal,” he added.

Arthur, an immigration judge for eight years, said he had granted asylum for Chaldeans who had demonstrated a credible fear of persecution or torture if returned. He said that the Chaldeans facing deportation could try to bring forward evidence of changed circumstances, or ineffectual prior counsel, to argue the final orders should be reconsidered.

He also said that dropping Iraq from the travel ban made sense, given the sizable U.S. presence in the country that would assist with vetting.

Arthur said enforcing the removal orders sends a broader message that the U.S. government is serious about enforcing its laws when it comes to persons who have no legal status to be in the U.S.

A moral component is involved, as well, Arthur said, in that enforcement of the laws discourages human smuggling to the U.S., where individuals may end up raped, robbed or even killed en route to the U.S. to seek asylum. Instead, it helps people seek asylum closer to their home countries.

He added that only strict enforcement of the law will reveal whether it has shortcomings that need to be addressed.

“We’re a kind and generous people — and a compassionate people mindful of our refugee heritage,” he said. “We’re a country of laws, and it is incumbent on us to enforce the laws Congress has passed.”


Out of Sync?

However, Phillippe Nassif, executive director of In Defense of Christians, an advocacy group for Christians in the Middle East, said his organization is concerned because the Chaldeans have a “genocide designation” from the U.S. Department of State.

In March 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution declaring “the atrocities perpetrated by [ISIS] against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria include war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.” Then-Secretary of State John Kerry followed days later with a March 17 declaration on behalf of the federal government, stating the terror group “is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims.”

While ISIS has lost much of its hold on Iraq, the country is still far from secure. Although the Iraqi army declared victory in Mosul, heavy fighting continues between the Iraqi government’s forces and ISIS. The terrorist group may carry on an insurgency, as it has in Egypt, a far more stable country, where ISIS has targeted Christians as its “favorite prey.” 

The deportation orders are wildly out of sync with reality for Chaldeans, according to Nassif.

“The problem with that is it does not take into account the genocide declaration,” Nassif said.

Besides the hostility toward Christians in Iraq that preceded ISIS and will likely continue for some time, he said, many of these Iraqi Christians have no experience with Iraq or even speak the local language. Deportation, he said, “could put their lives in danger.”

Nassif said he found it astonishing that the U.S. would send back to Iraq people it recognized were part of a group of people that have suffered genocide. ISIS has flattened their villages, and the situation is not stable.

 “There has to be a way to revisit the immigration status of those folks,” he added.


Catholic Support

The Catholic Church has also been providing spiritual support for the families.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a letter lodging its concern with the Department of Homeland Security, and the local Church has been active, as well.

Bishop Francis Kalabat, who leads the Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle, explained in a statement that he had tried to offer Mass for those Chaldeans incarcerated at a detention center in Youngstown, Ohio. The bishop said he was barred from doing so due to the facility’s strict policy against alcohol, so they prayed together other parts of the Mass instead, and he blessed them each with a relic of the True Cross.

“I was moved to tell them that it isn’t I who has come to pray with them, but the whole community is here because the WHOLE COMMUNITY [sic] was there praying with them, advocating for them, blessing them, in tears for them and strengthening them,” he stated. “I must say, it was powerful for me, and there were many tears shed by the inmates.”

Bishop Kalabat said he would be sending a priest to pray with them once a week while they continue to seek permission from the warden to say Mass at the facility.

Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako also conveyed his support in a message of solidarity with the families. The statement explained the patriarch has spoken with an international Catholic organization that has been in direct contact with Vice President Mike Pence on the situation.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.