Following the arrests of dozens of local Chaldeans, community leaders were working Monday to stop an immigration crackdown that they say could send Iraqi Christians back to a country where they face persecution.
“We are a country of laws, but we are also a country that values human rights,” said Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation.
Federal immigration agents arrested more than 100 local Iraqi Christians over the weekend and a few on Monday, and more are expected throughout the week, Manna said he learned from Washington officials.
The arrests come on the heels of Iraq’s agreement in March to begin accepting deportees from the U.S. for the first time in seven years — and activists fear Chaldeans sent back to Iraq could be killed because of their religion.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, Khaalid Walls, confirmed the arrests Monday in a statement, saying those who were rounded up had been convicted of crimes.
“As a result of recent negotiations between the U.S. and Iraq, Iraq has recently agreed to accept a number of Iraqi nationals subject to orders of removal,” he said.
“As part of ICE’s efforts to process the backlog of these individuals, the agency recently arrested a number of Iraqi nationals, all of whom had criminal convictions for crimes including homicide, rape, aggravated assault, kidnapping, burglary, drug trafficking, robbery, sex assault, weapons violations and other offenses.
“Each of these individuals received full and fair immigration proceedings, after which a federal immigration judge found them ineligible for any form of relief under U.S. law and ordered them removed,” Walls added.
Before this spring, Iraq had refused deportees from the U.S. without travel documents in an effort to secure its border against terrorists. In January, the Trump administration included Iraq among seven Muslim-majority countries covered by a temporary travel ban, but Iraq was dropped in March when the new policy was negotiated between Iraq and the U.S.
Under that agreement, eight Iraqi nationals have been removed from the U.S. and sent to Iraq, including one person from Michigan, Walls said. The deportations began in April.
But activists say Chaldeans should not be deported to Iraq because of atrocities committed against Iraqi Christians by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Activists provided legal counseling Monday to Chaldean families whose loved ones were detained by immigration officials. Community leaders also consulted with federal lawmakers and contemplated a federal lawsuit to stop the deportation of Chaldeans to a country where they are under siege.
“This is a challenging time,” said Manna. “There hasn’t been deportations to Iraq for quite some time. This is a land of laws. But sending (Iraqi-born citizens who committed crimes) back to Iraq is the equivalent of a death sentence.”
Metro Detroit is home to the largest Chaldean community in the U.S., with 150,000 Iraqi Christians, Manna said.
Among those arrested was the brother of Netta Hana, a Sterling Heights resident whose family fled Iraq in 1992. Since then, all have become U.S. citizens and professionals, except one brother.
Hana’s brother, whom she declined to name out of fear, arrived here when he was 9 years old. But he was convicted of possessing opioids when he was in his 20s and served eight years in prison.
After his arrest by federal immigration officials on Sunday, Hana said her 33-year-old brother now faces another debt to society that is too steep: deportation to Iraq, a country where he doesn’t speak the language and fears being killed by Islamic State militants because he has religious tattoos indicating he is Christian.
“He made a mistake,” Hana, 38, said of her brother, who has a green card. “He doesn’t deserve to die for it. He is a prime target for the radicals to target him. Just because he committed a crime doesn’t mean he has to be treated like an animal. He’s a human being.”
Another person who was arrested Sunday was the brother-in-law of Julian Shamoun, 33, of Oak Park.
Shamoun said the man her sister married, Maher Hanna, 37, of Sterling Heights, came to the U.S. with his family when he was 4 but was convicted of possession of marijuana when he was a teen. He went to prison and served time, but was not able to get his citizenship.
Hanna will be detained for 90 days, but it’s not clear what will happen after that.
“This is devastating to my whole family,” said Shamoun, who posted a video of her brother-in-law on her Facebook page.
“If he gets sent back to Iraq, he is being sent back to a country where a genocide is going on. We’re Christian.”
Other relatives of those arrested said federal immigration agents seemed focused on the Iraqi Christian community, which held a small protest Monday at Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church in Southfield and another rally in Sterling Heights.
Many Chaldean leaders say they don’t understand how the U.S. had declared acts against Chaldeans in Iraq and other minorities as genocide but then decided to deport them there.
“I really can’t put into words what I saw today,” said Nathan Kalasho, an activist and founder of Key Grace Academy Charter School, which educates hundreds of refugee children. “Today, I’m ashamed to be an American.”
Kalasho, his sister, Nadine, and others put out a call to action — and opened the school for families to get legal representation starting at 8 p.m. Sunday. Activists worked through the night to help family members.
“It’s frustrating and confusing because we were given limited information about the operation,” Kalasho said. “We are trying to compile as much as information as possible to make sure the families affected have information and legal counsel.”
Nationally, immigration arrests have risen this year after the election of President Donald Trump, who campaigned on tightening enforcement. In January, Trump issued an executive order denying federal funds to cities giving sanctuary to illegal immigrants.
A federal judge in California temporarily blocked the order in April but federal agents, feeling emboldened by the president’s support, have performed more sweeps than in recent years. Immigration arrests jumped nearly 40 percent in early 2017, according to the Associated Press.
The Metro Detroit arrests, which occurred as early as 7 a.m. Sunday, were made in areas around Dearborn, Warren and Sterling Heights, said relatives of the arrested immigrants. Besides Chaldeans, Muslims also were among those detained.
The immigrants were taken to the U.S. Detention and Deportation Center in Detroit, where they awaited bus rides later in the day to the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, said family members.
Walls said the “vast majority of those taken into custody” were detained at the northeast Ohio facility.
The Detroit arrests follow by one week a similar sweep in Texas and Oklahoma, where 70 immigrants were arrested over a three-day period. That sweep also targeted immigrants with criminal records, according to local press accounts.
Francis X. Donnelly contributed.