At the Chaldean Community Foundation in Sterling Heights, Michigan, more clients than usual are asking for assistance with their immigration cases.
“We’re a little overwhelmed with the number of people coming through just because people are very frightened by the [deportation raids],” foundation president Martin Manna said.
Advocates say there has been an increase of 10 to 15 percent, and the foundation estimates it will help more than 20,000 people this year.
The increased anxiety is a result of the detaining of 114 area Iraqis, mostly Chaldean Christians and some Shi’ite Muslims, in June. The majority of the 114 remain in detention despite the order of a Detroit judge, who ruled they could not be deported without first having their day in court.
The order did nothing to calm community fears. Manna said residents are now “very concerned” that they can be deported for “any reason.”
“Many of these folks were on final order of removal for committing crimes in the 80s or 90s,” Manna said. “They came here legally at some point, but either had a misdemeanor or a felony which put them on final order of removal.”
But the 114 had been under order of removal for many years, so this conservative religious minority, which mostly voted for President Donald Trump, was shocked when the raids took place.
“That’s why we have 2½- to 3-hour wait times. They’re normally an hour and half. Part of that is just helping educate people that ICE [immigration officials] can’t just detain you if you’ve done nothing wrong,” Manna said.
At 150,000, the Chaldean Christian Community in metropolitan Detroit is the largest outside of Iraq.
‘Taken back by fear’
Walls hung with reproductions of Assyrian deities, Ishtar Restaurant is a “piece of home” for Iraqi nationals who come for the authentic Iraqi food and glass clinking presentations that proclaim tea time.
But in mid-June, the ambience was nearly chaotic.
Immigration officers positioned themselves outside Ishtar with a list of people they were looking to arrest, a local resident told VOA through an interpreter.
“People stopped in their place and were just taken back by fear. They didn’t know what to do,” said the man, a green-card holder who came to the U.S. six years ago. He did not want to give his name, afraid there would be retributions against him.
Following the arrests, immigration lawyers, working pro-bono, filed a lawsuit invoking the international treaty against torture because the Chaldeans and Shi’ites would likely face torture and even death if they returned to Iraq.
U.S. District Court of Michigan Judge Mark Goldsmith agreed, writing that the Iraqis would face the “substantiated risk of death, torture, or other grave persecution” if sent back to Iraq before their deportation cases can be heard in court.
He halted deportation, not only of the Detroit Iraqis, but of 1,400 nationwide until their cases are heard in court.
Nora Youkhana of the CODE Legal Aid clinic in Detroit, co-counsel for the Iraqis in the case, told VOA that people are now “put on notice.”
She said the courts have reaffirmed through the Convention Against Torture, an international human rights treaty that prohibits torture and degrading treatment against all human beings, that the U.S. government cannot send someone back to a place where they will be tortured or killed. The U.S. has signed the treaty.
“So these other communities, people from El Salvador for example, they have this protection. They can’t just be put on a plane and left. They have to have their case heard so that they can exhaust the remedies that have been afforded to them by Congress,” Youkhana said.
Chief law enforcer
Larry Mick, a Macomb County resident who says he has many Chaldean friends, sees the law differently.
“They have one big problem and when we have a law, the president is always the chief law enforcement officer of the land. He doesn’t make the laws. Congress makes the laws. You can either enforce the law or not enforce it. It’s that simple; and he’s enforcing the law,” Mick said.
Previous attempts to deport the Iraqis had failed because the Baghdad government declined to issue them travel documents.
In March, the Iraqi government agreed to accept deportees from the U.S., part of a deal that prompted the Trump administration to revise an earlier executive order banning travel and exempt Iraq from the list of nations whose citizens would, in many cases, be barred from entering the U.S.