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Iraqi immigrants still stuck in Trump’s cruel and pointless purgatory

A 2017 edict swept up hundreds of people who have lived here for decades and could be killed if they are returned to a country they barely know.

Mukhlis "Mike" Murad in 2018, after he was swept up in a deportation raid in Michigan.Amanda Uhle

Mukhlis Murad’s Catholic funeral Mass in the Detroit suburbs was conducted fully in Aramaic, by priests in traditional clothes who swung a heavy thurible of incense I could smell even inside my mask. A few days after Palm Sunday, the areca branches festooning the sanctuary were becoming dry and brown. Women in lace mantillas chanted over the coffin, which was draped in purple damask. The Iraqi community was well represented alongside Murad’s second family — the regulars at the Detroit liquor store where he worked and where everyone called him Mike.

For five long years, until he died last month, Mike lived in constant fear of being deported to Iraq, a place where he had not been since he was a teenager and where he would almost surely face a violent death. Like a lot of Iraqi-born Michiganders I know, Mike worried that his Americanized habits, lack of Arabic-language skills, and Christian faith would make him a target for abuse in Iraq. He feared, legitimately, that he would be beheaded. Instead, he died on his 64th birthday, severely disabled by ALS and gunshot injuries from a 1997 armed robbery of the liquor store.

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He shouldn’t have had to spend his final years fearing deportation.

Mike came to the United States on a visitor’s visa in 1977, when he was 19. He was one of thousands of Iraqi-born Chaldean Catholics who fled religious persecution under Saddam Hussein. About 120,000 Chaldeans have made homes in metro Detroit, and like many of them, Mike worked at various late-night liquor and convenience stores, known locally as party stores. Chaldeans in Detroit have often operated corner stores as family businesses — as many of them had in Iraq, because they, unlike Muslims, were allowed by the government to buy and sell alcohol.

While working at a store in 1985, he passed, but did not sell, drugs to someone, a crime for which he served jail time the same year. Thirty years later, Mike told me he did this to get the attention of a woman he thought was pretty, and he had no understanding of the law. Wide-eyed, he looked at me, made the sign of the cross over his head and heart, and said, “I swear to Jesus I did not know this about the USA.”

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With a felony on his record and having overstayed his visitor’s visa, he was eligible for deportation. But given Iraq’s volatility, Iraqis weren’t deported. Instead, they were put under “final orders of deportation” and required to regularly check in with Immigration officials.

Mike made his annual check-ins and worked occasional shifts at the store, but after 1997 he was otherwise a homebody who nursed mental and physical injuries resulting from the armed robbery. He used a cane to get around the suburban home he shared with his son’s family and helped look after his toddler twin grandsons. A bullet lodged in his jaw numbed his face permanently, so Mike’s son shaved him every morning.

In the spring of 2017, everything changed. Around the time President Trump signed his so-called Muslim ban, restricting travel from several Middle Eastern countries, the Department of Homeland Security began a major and wholly unexpected operation — removing more than 1,300 Iraqi-born people from the United States. For the first time in decades, people like Mike would be targeted for deportation to Iraq.

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Early on the morning of Sunday, June 11, 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested at least 277 Iraqi-born Michiganders with criminal records, including Mike. Some infractions were minor — lapses in immigration paperwork or marijuana possession, for which recent law is more forgiving.

I first met Mike a few days before Christmas 2017 in Battle Creek’s Calhoun County Jail. He’d been incarcerated for six months and was awaiting either deportation or resolution of a class action lawsuit mounted by the ACLU of Michigan. We talked for 40 minutes across Plexiglas, and big tears rolled down his unshaven cheeks.

Canes are not allowed in Calhoun County Jail, and Mike was forced to use a wheelchair, leading to atrophy in his legs. His antianxiety medication wasn’t allowed either; he still had sporadic panic attacks related to the robbery. Thanks to the ACLU’s case and Mike’s immigration attorney, he was the first among this group of Iraqis to be released on bond. In January 2018, just in time for his grandsons’ birthday, he went home to await a hearing to decide his fate.

When he died, his case was still pending, as are about 1,000 other cases. And for the Iraqis caught in this shameful vestige of the Trump era, being released from detention does not release them into freedom. Of the 20-plus men I interviewed beginning in 2017, one was deported to Iraq and died shortly thereafter, one has absconded to Canada, one is gravely ill with kidney failure, and most wait in a heavy, nonsensical purgatory. Iraqi-born, they are deeply American, an embodiment of our nation’s pledge to nurture the tired, the poor, those yearning to breathe free. These men may yet be deported. They may wait, as Mike did, without ever seeing resolution.

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Representatives Andy Levin and John Moolenaar are trying to change that. They introduced the Deferred Removal for Iraqi Nationals Including Minorities Act of 2021, with the goal of offering a 24-month respite for cases like Mike’s. The men would have time to work with their attorneys to clear the long-ago criminal and immigration charges on their records.

“The previous president’s campaign to mass-deport people born in Iraq was such a grave injustice, and I don’t think people realize that we still have hundreds of individuals worrying that every knock on the door could lead to the instant breakup of their family — and even their death alone in Iraq,” says Levin, whose district includes the northern Detroit suburbs and its robust Chaldean community. The bill, introduced in May 2019, remains in the House Judiciary Committee.

Many Iraqis have prevailed when their criminal and immigration cases have been heard. Mike — following countless pandemic-related delays and difficulties in locating files relating to his immigration in 1977 and his crime in 1985 — was scheduled to go to court this month. Had time been on Mike’s side, he might have been spared a fair amount of agony in his final years.

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Since most of these deportation orders were levied, many years ago, conditions in Iraq have worsened significantly. The State Department considers Iraq unsafe for almost any American to visit because of “terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict, civil unrest,” and more. The danger increases by exponents for the Chaldean Catholics and other Iraqi-born people who have lived here for decades. Many are older, and some are in poor health. Tattoos, quotidian in Detroit, are verboten in Iraq. Gaps in culture and language are enormous. Some Iraqi-born people have spoken only English and lived in Michigan since they were children. Chaldean Christians never knew Arabic; in Iraq, they spoke Aramaic. If they return, Chaldeans face the violent religious persecution that’s led to the long-term, ongoing exodus of Iraqi Christians.

Incidentally, Trump vowed to protect Middle Eastern Christians days after his 2017 inauguration. He didn’t.

Newcomers from every nation, not just Iraq, experience the US immigration system as capricious, a quality Trump exploited. But he’s not in office now. There’s no reason to let his cold-hearted whims from years ago shape the lives of people living in America today.

Mukhlis "Mike" Murad in 2018.Amanda Uhle

I admired so much about Mike: his unceasing dedication to his family, the absolute joy he took in life and in the people surrounding him. Levin and Moolenaar’s bill would provide a measure of dignity to hundreds of people like him and fulfill the American ideals Mike’s family sought when they fled religious persecution in the 1970s.

At his funeral, one of Mike’s relatives, in her grief, held her hands over her heart and cried out something mournful and muffled in Aramaic and then, in English, what all of us in the church were thinking: “Mike suffered so much.”

Amanda Uhle is publisher and executive director of McSweeney’s, an independent nonprofit publishing company, and co-editor of the I, Witness series of first-person nonfiction accounts by youth activists.