Iraqi Christian Held in Arizona Among 1,400 Who Get a Reprieve From Deportation

71 people with deportation orders to Iraq are being held in the Florence, Arizona, immigration detention center.
71 people with deportation orders to Iraq are being held in the Florence, Arizona, immigration detention center. Brandon Waggy/Flickr
The visit to the immigration office was supposed to be routine. Constantin Jalal Markos was just checking in with the authorities in his home state of Michigan to inform them that he had a new address.

Instead, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities took him to a back room, where he was immediately detained.

“There was no warning,” he wrote in a sworn statement. “I didn’t have time to say goodbye to my daughters or my wife.”

At 36, Markos has spent his entire life in the United States. He's married and has two daughters, ages 15 and 10, who live in Michigan. He's a Chaldean Catholic, whose parents brought him to the U.S. when he was a baby. For most of his life, he assumed was a U.S. citizen.

Now, under the Trump administration’s deportation drive, Markos was seemingly bound for Baghdad after a stay in an Arizona immigration detention center — a spiral of events that was unimaginable when he casually walked into the Michigan ICE office.

But this deportation drive, which swept up Markos and 70 others who are being held in Arizona, hit a roadblock on Monday. A judge in Michigan ordered a temporary stay on deporting approximately 1,400 Iraqi nationals.

In his opinion, Judge Mark Goldsmith of Michigan argued that the government’s case ignores the extreme danger and violence that detainees would face upon removal to war-torn Iraq because of their status as religious or ethnic minorities and their strong ties to the U.S.

Immigration authorities have rounded up and detained more than 200 Iraqi nationals since June, causing panic and confusion in communities nationwide, especially in Michigan, where about 100 people were swept up in raids.

People who were targeted for removal had prior convictions, although in many cases an order for their removal from the U.S. was five or 10 years old; moreover, some of these convictions were minor by any standard. Markos was convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, more than a decade ago.

“Without warning, over 1,400 Iraqi nationals discovered that their removal orders — many of which had lain dormant for several years — were now to be immediately enforced, following an agreement reached between the United States and Iraq to facilitate removal,” Judge Goldsmith wrote in the opinion released on Monday.

The judge also noted that these sudden removal orders “triggered a feverish search for legal assistance" in order to protect people who faced a "grisly fate" if deported to Iraq. Many of the detainees with deportation orders are Chaldean Christians, a minority group that has been targeted by ISIS; Kurdish and Sunni Muslims are also among the detainees.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed the lawsuit, Hamama v. Adducci. According to an ICE spokesperson, the Florence immigrant detention center in Arizona is holding 71 Iraqi nationals.

One of the Florence detainees, 69-year-old Louis Jarges Akrawi, said other Chaldean Christians feared being deported to Iraq — a fear that he shared.

"I truly believe that some of my fellow Chaldeans will easily be targeted in Iraq because they are so Americanized and they do not understand the Iraqi way of doing things," Akrawi wrote in a sworn statement.

A staff attorney with Arizona's ACLU chapter, Billy Peard, has visited the Florence facility six times since June 30. Unlike many of the detainees in Florence who are residents of Arizona, he said most of the Iraqis were detained thousands of miles away.

“They don’t have the family network, the family ties," Peard told Phoenix New Times. "It’s harder for them to find legal representation in part because it’s harder for them to communicate with their own family members, who are back home trying to locate counsel for them.”

These transfers of detainees — many were bounced across the country from places like Michigan, then to Ohio, and then to Arizona — is partly why the judge halted the deportations. Their legal defense has been “significantly impeded” by these transfers, “separating them from their lawyers and the families and communities who can assist in those legal efforts,” wrote Judge Goldsmith, a U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Michigan.

ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan responded to the ruling in an emailed statement to New Times, criticizing the "criminal history" of the people detained around the country.

“Once again, this court has failed to acknowledge the generous procedures and safeguards afforded to aliens in the immigration removal process, under which all of these aliens were lawfully ordered removed from the United States," he wrote. "It’s even more concerning that the court’s decision overlooks the clear public safety threat posed by these aliens — the vast majority of whom are convicted criminals."

But the court felt that these "generous" safeguards and procedures had been violated in part because of transfers to far-flung facilities like the one in Florence. For his part, Markos was detained in Michigan, then Youngstown, Ohio, and then briefly in Louisiana before he arrived in Arizona. And these convictions could be from years ago, making people like Markos unlikely targets of an administration whose chief concern seems to be ratcheting up draconian immigration measures.

It's unclear whether the injunction will allow detainees to leave the Florence facility or return to their home state.

During Peard's interviews with people being held in Florence, he learned that many of the people in the recent round-ups have unclear nationalities, or may not even be Iraqi nationals. Some may qualify as stateless, which shocked him.

“I’ve never before encountered this situation where such a large percentage of a given demographic is arguably stateless," he said.

The ACLU had previously obtained two prior stays on deportations from Judge Goldsmith.

The deportations of these Iraqi nationals is the result of the Trump administration’s travel ban on majority-Muslim nations. A modified version of the ban struck a deal with the Iraqi government, where that country would not be on the list of banned countries; in return, Iraq would repatriate 1,400 individuals with orders of removal from the U.S.

Peard says this quid pro quo reaffirms something detainees have told him: They are “political prisoners," punished because of a diplomatic agreement.

As one of the older detainees, Akrawi began to teach fellow Chaldean Christians "how to survive in Iraq" while in the Youngstown, Ohio, detention center, fearing that younger people wouldn't know cultural cues such as how to speak to the police or the authorities.

"Many of them never knew Iraq," he wrote. "Many of them grew up in the United States since a young age, and they don't know how to survive in a war torn and unstable country like Iraq."

In Markos' sworn statement submitted to the court, he described delays and confusion that made speaking to attorneys outside the Florence facility difficult. “Here in Florence, the general picture is that if you don’t ask, you don’t receive. That’s it,” Markos wrote.

Detainees have no internet or email access, Markos said, and can only make outgoing calls. All of his communication with his attorney has been through family members or intermediaries.

“We’re completely in the dark here in the Florence facility," he added.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty