Immigration officials have rounded up dozens of Chaldean Christians living in Michigan, sparking protests from family members and advocates who say deporting the detainees back to Iraq is equivalent to a “death sentence.”
According to The Detroit News, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents began their crack down on immigrant Chaldean Christians over the weekend, arresting anywhere from 40 to 100 people at or near their homes — mostly on Sunday. More arrests are expected throughout the week.
ICE’s Detroit field office claimed in a statement to ThinkProgress that all of those arrested had criminal convictions such as “homicide, rape, aggravated assault” and others. But reports abound of ICE detaining people who lack criminals records, or whose crimes primarily involve immigration violations.
Regardless, advocates say many Chaldeans arrested by ICE already served their sentences for smaller crimes years ago, and that sending them back to Iraq will only expose them to persecution.
“There are laws that pertain to deportation, but there also laws that pertain to human rights,” Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation, told ThinkProgress. “The conditions in Iraq have worsened, they have not improved, especially for Christians.”
He noted that Chaldean churches in the region have been bombed, adding, “I think [deporting them back to Iraq] is equivalent to a death sentence.”
Roughly 100 people gathered outside a Detroit detention center on Sunday to protest the arrests, something Manna said would continue throughout the week. Julian Shamoun, whose brother-in-law was reportedly one of those detained, expressed her dismay to the Detroit News, noting that he was convicted of marijuana possession as a teenager but served his time.
“If he gets sent back to Iraq, he is being sent back to a country where a genocide is going on,” she said. “We’re Christian.”
Mana also noted that many of those detained wouldn’t be able to speak the native language in Iraq when they get there.
“Most of those being picked up or at risk of deportation have only really known America,” he said. “They came here as children. They’re culturally illiterate [in Iraq]…There’s really no homeland for the Chaldean people.”
While ICE raids are becoming increasingly common under President Donald Trump’s administration, the mass detention of Iraqi Christians is peculiar in that it appears to be wrapped up in politics surrounding the stalled Muslim Ban. Iraq was originally included as one of the seven Muslim-majority countries whose denizens were barred from entering the United States, but was cut from the second iteration of the ban. The change was a result of rapid-fire negotiations between the U.S. and Iraq in earlier this year, which resulted in Iraq announcing they would take back Iraqi nationals living in the U.S. who are subject to final orders of removal.
A statement from ICE’s Detroit field office to ThinkProgress appeared to reference these deals.
“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,” read the statement, which also noted ICE had a “backlog” of “these individuals.”
Chaldeans are an ancient Christian tradition that belong to a subset, or “rite,” of the Catholic Church known as the East Syrian Rite. Although they are distinct from the western Roman Catholic tradition, they remain in “full communion” with the Church, and have resided in the Iraqi region for centuries. Many still speak languages used in the time of Christ.
The Chaldeans living in Iraq have faced persecution for their faith in recent years, however, and have become a primary target of militant groups such as ISIS. When ISIS overtakes a region where Christians reside, they often offer followers of Christ a cruel choice between paying a tax, converting to ISIS’s hateful version of faith, or being murdered on the spot — sometimes by decapitation.
The situation has become so dire that then-Secretary of State John Kerry declared that ISIS is carrying out a genocide against several groups in 2016, including Christians such as Chaldeans as well as Yazidis, Shia Muslims, and others.
According to the Manna, the Detroit area is home to around 150,000 Chaldeans — the largest population outside of the Middle East. In a twist, some Chaldeans and Arab Christians supported Trump during the election, and others even backed his Muslim ban.
But Bishop Francis Kalabat, eparch of the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of Detroit, issued a statement on Monday arguing that many of those detained were not threats to society.
“The Church does not oppose justice, all hardened criminals that are a danger to society should be picked up,” Kalabat, who previously called on the U.S. government to do more about the genocide, said in his statement. He then added: “Many who were picked up are not hardened criminals but for the last decades have been great citizens.”
ThinkProgress reached out to the Iraqi Embassy and the Chaldean Community Foundation for comment, but did not receive a reply by press time.