Throughout the past month, activists have been fighting against the deportation of Iraqi Refugees. Immigration authorities say its punishment for being criminals. Activists say none of them deserve the death sentence they’d get if they went back.
On June 17, cars slowly parked along the side of the Immigration Center on Mt. Elliott. Most were filled with families who spent the minutes before their appointment check-ins talking among themselves.
Soon they had to walk toward a small building that looked like it could’ve been an old bait shop. That approachable-looking building is situated across the street from what is the formidable U.S. Homeland Security building.
An activist group called BAMN had already set up their signs at the busy intersection where the Homeland Security building sits, looking out to Jefferson Ave. They had spent the morning picketing all the entrances while a police presence watched them.
BAMN and other demonstrators were sitting on the front lawn, donning signs that asked drivers to honk in support of refugees. One of the protesters, named Kate Stenvig, was walking between the groups at both entrances. A car with an Ohio license plate rolled up to parked next to the gate of the building.
Kate walked up to the family heading to their appointment check-in asking, “You had to come all the way from Ohio for this?”
Almost all of those who came for their appointments that week were Iraqi Refugees. They’re a part of the South-East Michigan Chaldean community, a Christian minority in diaspora from Iraq. And with South-East Michigan being its largest community outside of the Middle East, many members consider Michigan home.
A complex combination of factors shook the Chaldean community over the past few years. And after some set-backs within the local courts, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement was ready to start deporting members of that community, again.
A Long Court Battle
Back in the summer of 2017, ICE conducted mass arrests of close to 200 Iraqi nationals across the country. 114 of those arrested were living in Metro Detroit. Sam Hamama was one of those people who was swept up in the arrests.
Hamama is the most prominent of those threatened with deportation. He’s the owner of a grocery store in Harper Woods. And according to an interview with WXYZ Detroit, he’s helped employees buy themselves a car to help the travel to their jobs be more comfortable.
According to a statement made to MLive by ICE Detroit Field Office Director Rebecca Adducci, the hundreds who were arrested had felony backgrounds.
But the question activists had on their minds isn’t about the criminal history of people who would be deported. It’s whether they have a life in Iraq.
Members of the Chaldean community have a long and complex history of being persecuted in their country of origin. The center of their home in Iraq has long been Mosul. But after it became the strongest ISIL-held city before its loss in 2017, it’s reported that Mass was not held on a Sunday in the city for the first time in 1,600 years.
Judge Mark Goldsmith of the Sixth Circuit Court found the mass detention of Iraqi Nationals unconstitutional since they hadn’t been able to present their case in front of immigration courts. In November, 2017 he ordered the release of everyone who had been detained for at least six months.
But a court ruling last December decided that Judge Goldsmith overstepped his jurisdiction. After the federal government appealed the case, a 2-1 majority showed that the Attorney General reserves the right to conduct deportations.
Coinciding with Trump’s announcement that millions of immigrants will be deported, Iraqi nationals were called for an appointment with immigration officials throughout that week.
It’s a Matter of Politics
Members of the Chaldean community have a contentious relationship with the Trump administration. Many of these deeply religious Metro-Detroiters said they had helped him win Michigan in 2016. Now those same people who elected him feel betrayed after members of their community were targeted.
But looking back at Trump’s relationship with Iraq it seems like his intentions were never to keep his promises with them. Starting with the initial “Muslim Ban,” Trump used the opportunity to gain leverage against the Iraqi government, as reported by Chris Gelardi of the Nation.
At the time of the Muslim Ban, Trump told the Iraqi Government that if it began accepting deportees then they would be excluded from future sanctions. That’s when eight people were first provided one-way tickets out of America in 2017.
Yet Iraq is hesitant to take in any more of its own immigrants. Since Christians are a persecuted minority, the Iraqi ambassador struggled with the humanitarian implications of taking back these refugees. The final decision on the matter was to make sure they had written documentation of their desire to go back to Iraq.
When the ACLU first started their case against the ICE Detroit Office, a judge allowed them to request documents of internal ICE operations. What they found was a coercion campaign to get people to sign a statement saying that they had a desire to go back to Iraq.
Many who were caught up in the first round of mass arrests said they were threatened with imprisonment for the rest of their lives, or that they would be prosecuted for not signing the agreement. 27 people are said to have been deported during the time when these tactics were standard practice.
The Grassroots Response
For BAMN, the Detroit ICE office could be considered a home away from home. A year ag, the group spearheaded a campaign to occupy the Mt. Elliott building. They even succeeded in shutting it down for a few hours before police forced them to leave.
Instead, they just moved their signs, and tents to the front lawn.
These protests from a year ago were more broadly directed at American Immigration Policy as a whole. But it was the deportation orders of the Iraqi-Christians that compelled BAMN to first mobilize in Detroit. After the group heard about travel orders for refugees around south-east Michigan they organized the rallies.
The issue at stake for BAMN is ensuring that each person threatened with deportation has their case brought before a judge. Most likely that means going to a judge within the immigration courts. That was the entire purpose of Judge Goldsmith’s, now defunct, ruling.
“The ACLU is still appealing back to Goldsmith again,” Stenvig said. “But we can’t really rely on that.”
As of now, two of the people called in for an appointment with immigration authorities were told to report to the airport in a week. Stenvig was thinking about protesting the airlines.
“Do you remember the viral video of that woman in Sweden?” Stenvig said. “And she refused to sit down and put on her seat belt.
“They ended up taking her off the plane because there were so many people who joined in.”
For the moment it seems that immigrant communities around Michigan will have to count on luck between Trump’s threat to remove people with final deportation orders, and the people pursuing rule of law for those who left a credible threat against their lives.
“If there’s an opportunity to fight it, I think a lot of people would,” Stenvig said. “There’s so much opposition to this policy.”
On June 30, the group protested in front of the terminal where Delta Airlines was about to take off for Iraq. The plane was preparing to move Iraqi Refugee Talal Namo back to the country where many activists say he would face a death sentence.
The plane was eventually stopped before take-off. Talal Namo was told to come back for a rescheduled flight.
Sam Hamama, whose flight was meant to be June 25, didn’t show for his flight.