After Backing Trump, Christians Who Fled Iraq Fall Into His Dragnet

STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. — A few Sundays ago, federal immigration agents walked through the doors of handsome houses here in the Detroit suburbs, brushing past tearful children, stunned wives and statuettes of the Virgin Mary in search of men whose time was up.

If the Trump administration prevails, more than 100 of these men may soon be deported, like the tens of thousands of other people rounded up this year as part of a national clampdown on illegal immigration.

But the arrests may have stunned this community more than most.

While President Trump was hurling verbal napalm at Mexico and vowing to keep out Muslims during his campaign, he was also promising to look out for people from these men’s besieged corner of the world.

They are Christians from Iraq — a land that they and their families fled decades ago because, they say, to live as a Christian in Iraq is no life at all, and sometimes means death. They settled in Detroit and its suburbs, accumulating into what may now be the largest population of Chaldean Christians in the world. They opened businesses, founded a dozen Chaldean Catholic churches and rose in numbers and wealth.

Even so, they, too, are subject to American immigration law — despite what the Chaldean community took to be an ironclad promise from a president whose election many of them saw as a miracle from God, helped along by their donations, their prayers and blessings from religious leaders.

“Christians in the Middle East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!” Mr. Trump said on Twitter in January, returning to a campaign-trail refrain that had captured Chaldean hearts and ballots across this stretch of Macomb and Oakland Counties. As the Chaldeans like to say, once with pride, now with fury, the area helped tip Michigan to Mr. Trump in November.

Soon after the June 11 immigration raids, a local Chaldean noted the disconnect between tweet and deed. “Then why are you deporting them?” he wrote on Twitter, bracketing the question with a snarl of English, Aramaic and Arabic that would be unprintable in any language.

“Everyone thought this could not apply to us,” said Nadine Yousif, a lawyer with CODE Legal Aid, a local organization coordinating the community’s response to the raids.

The immigration authorities give the same explanation they have given for the arrests of tens of thousands of Latinos and other immigrants without legal status since Mr. Trump took office: These people, too, are what the government refers to as “criminal aliens.”

Though most of them came here legally, as refugees or through relatives who were American citizens, their green cards were revoked after criminal convictions on charges including theft, drug possession, rape and murder.

“The operation in this region was specifically conducted to address the very real public safety threat represented by the criminal aliens arrested,” said Rebecca Adducci, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official in Detroit.

The men had been allowed to stay, in some cases for decades, because the Iraqi government had refused to issue travel documents for them to return.

That changed in March, when Iraq agreed to begin accepting deportees in exchange for being dropped from the list of countries affected by Mr. Trump’s revised travel ban, which barred citizens of several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.

Mr. Trump “broke his promise,” said Nahrain Hamama, 54, whose husband has been detained.

If the administration reverses course, however, “then I would consider voting for him again,” she added.

Besides the 114 Iraqis arrested around Detroit, immigration agents have also picked up 85 Iraqis in other parts of the country since May, including Shiite Muslims and members of other religious and ethnic groups, such as Kurds and Yazidis.

A federal judge in Michigan last week blocked the government from deporting any of them for two weeks while he weighs whether he has the authority to hear their immigration cases.

The Iraqis argue that near-certain torture or even death awaits them in Iraq, where the Islamic State has targeted Christians, Shiites and other religious groups. Arabic-language news channels and social media regularly bring word of ancestral villages razed, Christian cemeteries shattered and Chaldean churches shuttered. Though their villages were recently liberated, most Christians have stayed away out of fear, taking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Chaldeans, who practice Eastern Rite Catholicism, descend from the ancient Assyrians of what is now northern Iraq, where they are increasingly rare. Since 2007, nearly 30,000 Chaldeans have poured into the Detroit area, following waves of Iraqi Christian arrivals that began early in the last century and intensified after Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979. The number of Christians in Iraq has tumbled from about 1.4 million in 1987 to an estimated 250,000 last year, leaders of the community in the Detroit area said.

Many of the Michigan Chaldeans speak little or no Arabic. Tattoos of the Virgin Mary and crosses stipple their shoulders and wrists.

“The second they step foot out of the airport,” after deportation to Iraq, “they’re targets,” said Wisam Naoum, a lawyer turned community activist.

Chaldeans had written off the Obama administration because of what they saw as its failure to accept more Iraqi Christian refugees. But Mr. Trump’s original travel ban, issued in January, offered an implicit exception for Christians in the Middle East, allowing persecuted religious minorities to enter as refugees even as it barred people from Muslim-majority countries.

(When Mr. Trump revised the travel ban, he dropped the exception in an attempt to neutralize lawsuits claiming that the ban discriminated against Muslims. The Supreme Court agreed last week to hear the case.)

It took only a day of arrests for Detroit’s Chaldeans to lurch from security to panic.

“We anticipated they’d be picking up the worst of the worst,” said Martin Manna, the president of the Chaldean Community Foundation, a social services organization, where even citizens and green card holders are calling to ask if they should worry. “Not people like Sam Hamama.”

Usama Hamama, 54, a partner in a local supermarket who goes by Sam, was getting ready for church with his wife and four children when immigration agents knocked on the door of his spacious home in a quiet West Bloomfield subdivision. He had just enough time to collect his medications and say goodbye before being taken into custody.

Mr. Hamama, who arrived in the United States from Baghdad when he was 11, was convicted of a weapons possession charge after he flashed an unloaded gun during a road-rage confrontation with another driver in 1988. He was ordered deported in 1994.

His children view him differently. “I would never use the word ‘felon’ or ‘criminal’ or ‘alien’ for my dad,” said Britanny Hamama, 20, his eldest child.

Like many other Chaldeans, his wife was drawn to Mr. Trump by his opposition to abortion, his economic message and his promises of succor for Christians in the Middle East. But she could not bring herself to vote after Mr. Hamama warned her that their family could be snarled in Mr. Trump’s immigration crackdown.

Another detainee, Najah Konja, was checking his emails over a cup of coffee on his back porch, looking out over the pond out back, when the doorbell sounded on June 11.

Mr. Konja, who goes by Nick, fled Iraq with his family at age 15, and later served 22 years in federal prison for selling cocaine. His green card was revoked, but since he could not be deported, he was able to stay, rise up the ranks at a chain of tobacco stores called Wild Bill’s, become engaged and buy a house.

Unlike some other ex-felons, he said, he had bettered himself and contributed to the local economy. “I wasn’t born here, but I’m more American than them,” said Mr. Konja, 55, speaking by phone from a jail in Port Huron, Mich.

Still, Mr. Konja and his family do not blame Mr. Trump. “A lot of this stuff, it probably doesn’t even get to his desk,” he said.

For other families, the separation from fathers and husbands has forced them into a rueful reckoning: The immigration crackdown they had always associated with other people had, somehow, leapt from the southern border to their subdivisions.

“What’s the difference between a Mexican and a Chaldean?” said Nicole Sabatine, whose husband, Atheer Fawzi Ali, 41, was detained in June. “When people, Mexicans, whatever, have kids here, taking their parent away is not the answer.”

Mr. Ali’s family fled Iraq in the early 1990s after his father, an army officer, defied an order from Saddam Hussein. He lost his green card after breaking into a car as a teenager.

That Sunday in June, he had just enough time to say goodbye to his 12-year-old daughter, Natalia, before turning himself in.

“I’ll always be there for you,” he told her. “Even if I’m in Iraq.”