For two years, Sam Hamama has been living in a hellish limbo. It all started on a Sunday morning in June 2017, when six agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement came to his home in West Bloomfield, Michigan, while he, his wife and his four children were getting ready to attend a church service. The agents were there to fulfill a more than two-decades-old order to deport Hamama, a 56-year-old grocery store contractor, to Iraq, a country he hadn't seen in 45 years. They asked him to step outside, then handcuffed him and took him away.
His arrest was part of a nationwide crackdown on Iraqi immigrants early in the Trump administration. In the week when Hamama was detained, ICE swept up more than 200 Iraqi-born residents across the United States--many of whom, like Hamama, hadn't lived in their native country in decades.
The raids set off an extensive legal battle. With Hamama as the lead plaintiff, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan quickly sued, arguing that Iraq was unsafe for the detainees to return to, and won a series of court orders that barred immigration authorities from deporting the Iraqis until they had a chance to individually petition an immigration judge for protection. But with a backlog of more than 1 million cases, getting a date in immigration court can take years. ICE lawyers filed challenges and, after a year and a half, persuaded judges on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to quash the ACLU's injunctions. In April, more than 1,000 Iraqis were once again rendered vulnerable to ICE arrest.
In 2019 America, this is where the story usually gets stuck. The increasingly aggressive policing of deportation orders, and lawmakers' inability to enact policies protecting immigrants, have left many long-time residents helpless to counter ICE's efforts to detain and remove them--like the agency's reported plans to round up thousands of undocumented immigrants this coming weekend. But an unusual confluence of immigrant rights advocacy and conservative Christian politics could make these Iraqis a rare case: A bipartisan group of representatives in Congress has introduced legislation that would, for two years, prohibit ICE from arresting most Iraqis with deportation orders while they bring their cases to court.
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Passing the bill would be a complex undertaking. It is relatively rare for Congress, rather than the executive branch, to put in place temporary protections from deportation, and even rarer for such legislation to target those with live deportation orders. And with the Trump administration's immigration record, as well as a divided and at times obstructionist Congress, the bill seems, on its surface, to be a long shot.
But administration officials and legislators from both parties have previously committed to protecting certain Iraqi subgroups--groups that, over the past two decades, have experienced what Congress and the State Department have described as a genocide--creating an opening for a possible political solution. In particular, the White House has been keen on protecting Christians in the Middle East and, according to legislators who spoke to POLITICO Magazine, has expressed interest in addressing the plight of the disproportionately Christian Iraqi immigrant community in the United States.
While the administration continues to house asylum-seeking families in squalid conditions and ban travelers from several Muslim-majority countries, Iraqi immigrants make up one of few groups that have some prospect of gaining protection during the Trump era.
"Every day I think about it," Hamama told POLITICO. "I want my chance and that opportunity--that relief."
In recent decades, deportations to Iraq have been rare. The Obama administration tried for years to facilitate them, but Iraqi officials were adamantly against what they often call "forced repatriations" and refused to cooperate--partly for logistical reasons, but mostly over ethical and humanitarian concerns, especially since they couldn't guarantee the safety of all returnees, according to internal ICE and State Department documents uncovered by the ACLU.
From the week it came into power, the Trump administration tried to change this. After President Donald Trump enacted his first "travel ban" executive order in January 2017, barring nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq, from entering the United States, ICE and the State Department started to reengage with Baghdad, according to ICE briefing materials. The two governments eventually reached a deal: Trump removed Iraq from the second iteration of the travel ban, signed six weeks after the first, while Iraq agreed to begin facilitating deportations.
Of the more than 200 Iraqis swept up by ICE in June 2017, roughly 100 were from Michigan's Chaldean community--members of a historically persecuted Christian sect with roots in the Assyrian empire. Hamama is part of this community; seeking a life free from violence and harassment, he and his family were resettled to the United States as refugees in the early 1970s. Although Iraq has changed dramatically since then, life has gotten worse for Chaldeans there, as the 2003 U.S. invasion, the rise of Islamic State and the proliferation of rogue militias have killed or displaced at least two-thirds of Iraqi Christians. U.S.-based Chaldeans like Hamama would be easily identified in Iraq, since they mostly speak Aramaic rather than Arabic, and they fear ostracism, torture or death if they're sent back. (Other ethnic and religious Iraqi minorities also picked up by ICE, like Kurds and Sunnis, could face similar persecution if deported.)
Most of the arrested Iraqis, having come to the United States as refugees or via other official channels, were rendered deportable by criminal convictions here. But while their offenses run the gamut--from felonious assault to nonviolent drug offenses (Hamama flashed an unloaded gun during a road confrontation in 1986 but has had no run-ins with the law since)--Rebecca Adducci, director of ICE's Detroit field office, characterized the June 2017 raids at the time as an effort "to address the very real public safety threat represented by the criminal aliens arrested."
As such, ICE kept those it had picked up in detention, even when a court had sided with the ACLU in staying their deportation. Hamama, for instance, wasn't granted a bond hearing until he had spent nearly eight months in a county jail, while about 120 other Iraqis were locked up for a year and a half before a judge ordered them released late last year.
Advocates and Iraqi-Americans argue that ICE's public-threat charge is unfounded and even prejudiced, since the deportable Iraqis served their time just like U.S. citizens with criminal convictions do. They also say that deportation amounts to a disproportionate sentence for their crimes, whether it results in death--violating international law against deporting people to obvious harm--or just banishment from one's family and community.
"I made a mistake," said Hamama, whose children were all born in Michigan. "But honestly, give me an opportunity to bring my kids up in this country."
In a statement sent to POLITICO, Adducci described the Sixth Circuit's decision to lift the injunction on deportations to Iraq as "a decisive victory further vindicating ICE's efforts to remove these aliens, many of whom had criminal convictions."
When the Sixth Circuit handed down its final decision earlier this year, federal lawmakers representing Iraqi communities were ready. Freshman Representative Andy Levin of Michigan's Ninth District--which contains the highest numbers of Iraqi-born and Chaldean residents of any district in the country--was in contact with lawyers working on the ACLU case, and four months after being sworn into Congress, he was eager to take action.
Levin teamed up with Representative John Moolenaar, a Michigan Republican, and after sending letters to ICE, the Department of Homeland Security and the office of the vice president, the pair decided to spearhead legislation aimed at shielding their constituents from ICE's grasp.
They came up with the Deferred Removal for Iraqi Nationals Including Minorities Act, which they introduced on May 7. If passed, the act would prohibit ICE from deporting Iraqis with removal orders who have been living in the United States since before 2014 for two years--enough time for them to have their cases heard in immigration court, the lawmakers reason. The bill would also ensure that the Iraqis have work authorization during that time, and that ICE wouldn't be able to detain them.
"We're just asking for everyone to have their day in court," Levin said in an interview.
In a way, the bill is straightforward: Its sponsors are merely hoping to ensure that Iraqis get due process. But there's a certain boldness to it. Although it's common for Congress to weigh in on the situations of certain immigrant groups, the job of putting up provisional guards from deportation for specific nationalities is most often (and easily) taken up by the president or the secretary of Homeland Security via mechanisms like Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED).
According to Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, "Congress usually gets involved to offer people a path to permanent residence and citizenship." But almost all temporary protective orders have come from the executive branch, and they don't tend to single out immigrants with deportation orders, as Levin and Moolenaar's bill does.
In the House, the bill currently has 29 co-sponsors, including eight Republicans, and seems like a shoo-in. Of course, the Senate and the White House are bigger challenges.
But Levin and Moolenaar don't think passage is impossible in this case. In the 2016 election, Chaldeans in Michigan voted for Trump in large numbers, not least because he and his running mate, Mike Pence, vowed to protect Christian minorities in the Middle East. Some even credit the community--roughly 120,000 strong--with helping Trump to win the state by fewer than 11,000 votes.
Pence has been particularly vocal on the issue of protecting Christians abroad. Less than five months after taking office, he told the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians that "the suffering of Christians in the Middle East has stirred Americans to action" and that they "have the prayers of the president of the United States." And at the 2017 National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, held just five days before the 2017 raids, the vice president denounced the "genocide" ISIS was perpetrating against "followers of Christ," and said the administration "is fully committed to bringing relief and comfort to the believers" in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
With their legislative push, Levin and Moolenaar plan to pressure the administration, as well as certain Senate Republicans, to make good on their promises.
"There's a lot of Republicans who really work a lot on protecting Christian minorities around the world, and the president has expressed quite an interest in that," Levin says. "The situation of Chaldeans is so dire, and this bill represents almost the most concrete effort in the Congress to help those people."
In Levin and Moolenaar's ideal scenario, the right pressure on the White House could even make the legislative process moot. A TPS, DED or other order for Iraqis from the Trump administration itself would accomplish the goal of protecting those with deportation orders much more quickly than working through Congress. The current administration has never designated a new nationality for such protections and has sought to terminate many groups' status; however, it has recertified some existing groups, most recently Liberians.
As Gelatt of the Migration Policy Institute points out, the administration doesn't even need an official proclamation to halt the deportations--"they're in control" of who is and isn't targeted, and could just "not move forward with the removals," she says.
"We would welcome any unilateral action by the administration," Moolenaar says.
Both congressmen's offices indicated that some Republican senators had expressed interest in the issue, but none has publicly come out in support of the bill. Moolenaar says he and his staff also have discussed the issue with administration officials "at the highest levels" and that they are receptive to working toward finding a solution. Pence's office did not respond to requests for comment.
It's unclear how much time the representatives have to get something done. In the run-up to the Sixth Circuit ruling, the government of Iraq was indicating that it might once again refuse to cooperate in the deportation process. But since the April ruling, ICE has successfully deported more than two dozen Iraqis, and has plans to remove an additional 20 in coming weeks, according to the Detroit News.
Levin and Moolenaar recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking him to intervene in the matter, but the State Department hasn't publicly indicated that it's willing to do so. Asked about plans to deport more Iraqis, Adducci, the ICE field office director, sent a statement she had issued in April: "ICE is now reviewing this decision to determine its next steps." (According to the New York Times, the families who are expected to be targeted in the raids this coming weekend "crossed the border recently," suggesting Iraqis aren't likely to be part of that effort.)
Margo Schlanger, a law professor at the University of Michigan on the team counsel for the ACLU case, described the situation as urgent. Iraqis "need a chance to get into immigration court and apply current law to current facts," she said. "What [ICE is] trying to do is to hurry them to deportation without giving them a chance."
By Schlager's account, at least 242 Iraqis have succeeded in reopening their cases. As of late April, when she last conducted a census of the cases, 60 had had their cases resolved, and 35 of those had won some form of relief from deportation. It's progress, but it's a far cry from processing all of the nearly 1,400 Iraqis living in the United States with orders of removal.
Sam Hamama is one of the 242 who has succeeded in reopening his case. An immigration judge in Detroit gave him a hearing date of January 14--six months from now. Until then, he has to check in with ICE on a monthly basis.
He's trying to enjoy his family and his life. This year, he had children graduate from middle school, high school and college. He repeatedly mentions how fortunate he feels, but the uncertainty weighs on him.
"I'm always on pins and needles," he says. "I'm praying and hoping that this whole year goes by just so that I can get to January."
"I just pray that that day comes."