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Iraqis worrying, waiting for knock on the door from ICE agents

people protesting the detainment of iraqi nationals in Detroit
Michigan Radio

Tuesday is an important day for about a thousand Iraqis with final deportation orders. 

A federal appeals court says Immigration and Customs Enforcement can try to resume deportations of these Iraqis to their former homeland.

That's even though advocates say many have lived in the U.S. since they were kids and speak only English, and that deportation could expose them to torture or death.

In a way, Sam Hamama is one of the "lucky ones." He was among more than a hundred Iraqis with final deportation orders rounded up on June 11, 2017.  

More were detained in the weeks following.

ACLU attorneys agree Hamama would be at grave risk in Iraq. He could be arrested and tortured, or even murdered.  

For one, he's fully Americanized. Americans are generally regarded as spies in Iraq. And he's a Chaldean Catholic. 

There are only about 250,000 of this religious minority left in Iraq, and most had to flee their homes in the north because of ISIS.   

"I have no idea where to go," says Hamama. "I have no family whatsoever back in Iraq. I'm 56 years old; you could say 45 years of my life have been in this country. Where am I going to go?"

Hamama is "lucky," because while the ACLU was challenging the legality of the detentions, he got out and got a deportation appeal hearing before an immigration judge. His hearing will be in 2021.

Many of the 400 others who were rounded up also had time to get a hearing. Some have already won the right to stay in the U.S.

But there are about a thousand Iraqis who were never arrested. University of Michigan attorney Margo Schlanger says they could be in big, big trouble starting on Tuesday.

That's because a federal appeals court gave Immigration and Customs Enforcement the legal green light to immediately proceed with the deportations.

"Rather than giving them time to have a fair process, now they get to arrest them and hurry as hard as they can and deport them as fast as they can," says Schlanger.

Congressman Andy Levin says four previous administrations allowed these Iraqis to stay in the U.S. He says the deportations would violate the United Nations Convention Against Torture and the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act. 

What stopped the deportations in their tracks in 2017 was Iraq's refusal to take former nationals if they didn't agree to be deported.

Levin says that may have changed. 

"I'm very worried about what ICE intends to do here," says Levin. "And I'm hearing directly from the Iraqi government at the highest levels that they are being pressured by the Trump administration to take people back."

It’s not clear that’s ICE’s plan. The agency isn’t saying what it will do next. But in a statement, it praised the appeals court for affirming its ability to continue the deportations.

Some of the Iraqis ICE wants to deport did commit violent crimes. Sam Hamama threatened someone with an unloaded gun during a road rage incident when he was a young man.

But ACLU attorneys say some others simply stayed past the terms of their visas, or committed minor crimes.

One Iraqi was convicted of misdemeanor fraud for selling cigarettes without a license; another was convicted of marijuana possession. 

No matter what their crimes, if they don't already have a deportation appeal hearing scheduled, they're highly vulnerable to immediate deportation.

Sam Hamama says he got help from the ACLU in fighting to stay here. He says others in his situation should get help, too.

"You can't stop fighting," he says. "Appeal. I know it's hard. I know the money's a big deal, but find it, make it happen. Do not give up. Do not give up."

Meanwhile, efforts in Congress continue to try to help the Iraqis. 

20 members of Congress, including five Republicans from Michigan, have urged ICE in a letter to defer the deportations until each Iraqi gets a chance to appeal their deportation order before an immigration judge. 

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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