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Let’s pause Iraqi deportations

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In 1974, when he was 11 years old, my client, Sam Hamama, a Chaldean Christian, legally came to the United States, fleeing persecution in Iraq.Today, he and his wife, Nahrain, have a supermarket business and are raising four U.S. citizen kids, two of them students at the University of Michigan, where I teach.

But in June 2017, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement rounded up Sam, along with hundreds of other Iraqis living in America to deport them to Iraq. Sam was ordered deported because, thirty years ago, he flashed an (unloaded) gun during a road confrontation. He’s had no further trouble with the law, and was never deported, because Iraq had for decades refused to accept deportees.

The June 2017 Iraqi roundup centered in my home state of Michigan but reached Iraqi-American communities all around the country. After 200 arrests by ICE, the U.S. government worked hard to get Sam and the other arrested Iraqis onto a charter plane to Baghdad, moving them from immigration jail to immigration jail without giving them time to get before an immigration judge and ask for a pause, a stay of removal, so that their old immigration cases could be reconsidered in light of current law and current facts.

What Sam needed was a chance to prove to an immigration judge that he should be able to stay in America because his life is in danger in Iraq, and because his deportation is improper under current law. A federal class action (I am on the plaintiffs’ counsel team) succeeded in slowing things down for Sam, stopping his deportation long enough to give him time to go back to immigration court and reopen his case. But the court order that helped Sam is now gone. In April 2019 the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit decided, 2-1, that the district court was powerless to stay deportations, even though Iraqis face persecution, torture or death if deported. Some 1,000 other Iraqis are now in danger.

What those Iraqis need is the Deferred Removal for Iraqi National Including Minorities Act. Proposed by Congressmen Andy Levin (D-Mich.) and John Moolenaar (R-Mich.), this bipartisan bill would pause most Iraqi deportations for two years, to give our Iraqi neighbors a chance to invoke the processes immigration law entitles them to—a chance to explain their individual circumstances to an immigration judge and show that under current law and current facts, their old removal orders are no longer appropriate.

If Sam were deported to Iraq today, he’d walk into what both the Congress and the State Department have labeled genocide of Chaldean Christians as well as other religious groups. In Iraq, what used to be a community of as many as 1.4 million Christians now numbers 250,000.  

Other ethnic and religious minority groups are likewise in terrible danger. Iraqis who have assisted the American military are at risk precisely because they helped our country. And for still others, the danger is simply because they are Americanized, without Iraqi family or community. Deported without resources, without even an ID, and without the necessary cultural competency, deportees face repeat detention, violence, even torture or murder. And Iraq already has a devastating displaced persons problem, without trying to absorb hundreds of Americanized former Iraqis.

American immigration law is clear: Would-be deportees are entitled to reopen their old deportation cases if changed country conditions make deportation dangerous, because nobody should be deported to face persecution and torture. And the facts on the ground are also clear: Iraq is a dangerous place, so dangerous that the State Department recently evacuated all nonessential personnel. It’s appalling that the Trump administration acknowledges the dangers in Iraq, but it still trying to deport Iraqis like Sam without giving them a chance to have their cases heard in immigration court.

Fortunately, Congress can easily solve the problem. It can give Iraqis time to appear before an immigration judge and ask for their old immigration cases to be reconsidered in light of current law and current facts. It took the immigration court system over a year to decide to reopen Sam’s case. (His hearing on the merits hasn’t happened even yet.)

So far, the vast majority of Iraqis who have had the chance to request that their cases be reopened—the first step of the process—have won. Because of the lawsuit, that is, Sam and hundreds of our other clients were able to explain to the immigration court system why their old deportation orders were no longer appropriate.

While most of the reopened cases haven’t been decided yet (due to the severe backlogs in immigration courts), dozens of our clients have succeeded in winning immigration relief. Their deportations have been cancelled, they have gotten their green cards back and they have even become U.S. citizens.

What the rest need is time. Time for the system to work. The Deferred Removal for Iraqi National Including Minorities Act doesn’t decide any individual immigration case. All it does is make sure there is enough time for the system to work as it should.

It’s a simple, limited request—a chance for a fair process. It deserves broad support.

Margo Schlanger is the Wade H. and Dores M. McCree Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School

Tags Andy Levin Deportation Deportation from the United States Ed Case Immigration Customs and Enforcement Immigration to the United States John Moolenaar Sam Hamama

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