When news broke on June 11 of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) roundup of 114 Iraqi Christian immigrants with fears of deportation, the phones at the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC lit up. Executive Director David Kurzmann said his agency received fearful calls from rabbis and other leaders in the Jewish community asking what they could do to help.
"As soon as the arrests happened, we received dozens of phone calls asking how to support our Chaldean neighbors," Kurzmann said during a phone interview and again reiterated at a June 21 anti-deportation rally held outside the U.S. District Court Clerk's office in Detroit.
"As Jews, it is very distressing to hear about this," he said. "We recently commemorated the anniversary of the return of the St. Louis to [Europe], where Jews seeking refuge in this country were turned away and sent back to their deaths. The U.S. risks repeating this same dark mistake. The Jewish community knows the tragic consequences of shutting down pathways to safety for people in harm's way. We must not let this happen again. 'Never Again' is as applicable today as it has ever been."
On June 21, U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith listened to a class-action lawsuit filed by area attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union designed to postpone deportations to Iraq, where Christians have faced brutal persecution, torture and death in recent years because of the rise of ISIS. Goldsmith concluded the detainees would not be deported to Iraq until at least June 28.
Inside and outside the courthouse, and in the days leading up to the filing of the lawsuit, Jews and other ethnic minority groups reached out to the Chaldeans with legal, moral and social support. But until the deportation ruling is appealed or reversed with reopening of individual cases, the fate of the detainees is grim.
Still, leaders in the Chaldean community are holding out hope their loved ones, now being held in a detention center in Youngstown, Ohio, will be released and expressed appreciation for the support of other minority communities.
"There is no community like the Jewish community," said Martin Manna, Chaldean Chamber of Commerce president. Since the arrests, Manna has received many calls of concern and support. Rabbis have phoned in asking how their congregants can help. The Chamber retained the legal services of former Sen. Carl Levin, now with Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP.
"You would have thought it was his own child in danger of being deported from the way [Levin] responded so quickly," said Manna, adding that Levin worked with other attorneys and the ACLU to file the lawsuit with the federal court to postpone deportations.
Temple Israel Rabbi Paul Yedwab, one of several local rabbis who reached out to Manna with support, said he cannot understand why the Chaldean population is being targeted.
"Our own government officially recognizes there is a genocide right now being committed against Iraqi Christians, so how can we possibly send them back?" Yedwab asked.
As a congregation, Temple Israel informed members about the situation and encouraged them to attend the June 16 and 21 rallies. Also, "hoards" of congregants are on standby offering to volunteer in any way they can to show their support for the families affected by the arrests.
"While we are coordinating closely with the JCRC/AJC and many of our members have offered up pro bono legal services, there is a bit of a feeling of helplessness. This truly lies in the fate of the legal system," Yedwab said.
Bradley Maze, a lawyer at George P. Mann and Associates in Farmington Hills, is representing five of the detainees and is hearing from other Chaldeans fearful of being detained in the future. Maze said he is working to file motions of appeal to reopen their individual cases to delay or reverse their order for deportation.
"My clients have served their time for minor crimes they committed decades ago," Maze said. "They are now completely rehabilitated and contributing members of society with jobs and families. They check in with immigration officers every six months like they are supposed to, some even within the last few weeks. If they are sent back to Iraq, the Iraqi government cannot guarantee their protection as Christians, and my clients fear torture or worse by ISIS."
Maze noted the irony that many involved in the class-action lawsuit -- from Michigan ACLU Executive Director Kary Moss who filed the lawsuit to attorney Margo Schlanger, former civil rights chief in the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama Administration, to Judge Goldsmith -- are all Jewish.
"The notion of people being taken from their homes in front of their families and thrown on a bus conjures up scary images for Jews," said Maze, who has practiced immigration law for a decade, six of those years working as an immigration attorney assisting refugees at Freedom House. "The ethos of helping the refugee is part of the Jewish family legacy. It is Jewish tradition."
Though the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center did not directly represent any of the 114 Iraqi detainees, Ruby Robinson, MIRC supervising attorney, said his organization provides guidance on court filing procedures and processes to parties filing immigration lawsuits, including the lawsuit filed last Wednesday by the ACLU designed to postpone the deportations.
"All of the detainees entered the U.S. lawfully but committed a crime before they were eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship," Robinson said. "For 20 or 30 years, they served time for their crimes and have since lived their lives, starting jobs and families and checking in with immigration officers like they were supposed to. Because things have gotten so bad in Iraq, many of them didn't think anything like this could ever happen. Now, all we can do is assist their attorneys to figure out the best strategy of what can be legally done to postpone deportation."
While some in the Jewish community offered their legal services, others have offered moral support by attending impromptu rallies, such as the one held outside the court where a diverse crowd stood in solidarity with Chaldean Christians, who waved American flags and bore red crosses expressing their anguish of the thought of their loved ones facing possible persecution if deported to Iraq. They spoke directly on the podium or listened to the distress of family members who fear they will never see their loved ones again.
Iraqi American Deavin Konja of Franklin came to support his uncle Najah Dawood Konja of Clawson, who is being detained even though he won an appeal with a federal court to open his case two days before he was picked up and detained June 11.
"By that Monday morning, we filed for his release; it was ignored completely and has been ignored ever since," Konja said. "He served time for his crime he committed over 30 years ago. He was one of the few that should have been immediately released because of the federal appeal on his case. We know our attorneys are doing everything possible."
Lori Lutz of Bloomfield township came to the rally with Detroit Jews for Justice and held up a sign bearing a quote from Exodus about the commandment to "remember the stranger."
"Today, this is too reminiscent of rounding up groups of people throughout our history and deportation, not letting them stay in a safe place and possibly sending them back to a place of real danger," Lutz said. "As Jews, we have seen this before and we cannot let it happen again."