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Dozens of Iraqi nationals swept up in immigration raids in Michigan, Tennessee

Protesters in downtown Detroit blocked a bus carrying about 40 undocumented Iraqi Chaldean Christians who were arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on June 11. (Video: The Washington Post)

Usama Hamama, an Iraqi-American supermarket manager and father of four, was dressing for church on Sunday morning when immigration authorities knocked on his door, handcuffed him and took him away.

Hamama, who received a deportation order for a gun charge more than 30 years ago, was one of scores of Iraqi nationals picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in sweeping raids in Michigan and Tennessee during the past week as ICE processes a “backlog” of some 1,400 Iraqis the U.S. wants to deport because they at some point committed a crime.

The arrests come as the result of a deal between Iraq and the Trump administration this year, when Iraq — seeking to remove itself from Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries — agreed to start accepting deportees who do not have passports or travel documents.

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The arrangement has provoked fear and anger among Michigan’s large Iraqi Christian community, which appeared to account for a large proportion of the arrests. Chaldean Christian leaders have compared the deportations to a death sentence; deportees are being sent back to a war-torn country that is often hostile to Christians.

Congress last week passed a bill to provide emergency aid to the victims of what the Obama administration labeled a genocide by the Islamic State against Christians, Shiite Muslims and others in Iraq and Syria. Trump also has expressed his desire to prioritize Christian refugees.

Concerns in the community began rising in April, when a charter flight left Michigan with eight Iraqis on board, including on Chaldean.

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Many who have been arrested, like Hamama, who spent a year in prison for pointing a gun at another man during a road rage incident, completed their sentences years ago and had been checking in with ICE regularly, as required.

“He served his time — a year in prison and 13 months on a tether program — and it was over by ’94. We got married and started our lives,” said Hamama’s wife, Nahrain Hamama, who said her family would lose its primary breadwinner and health insurance if her husband gets deported. “He’s never had any other offense. He works hard, he pays his taxes and he is dedicated to his family … My daughter attends the University of Michigan — I will literally have to pull her out of her pharmacy program” because he pays the tuition.

A spokesman for ICE said its agents targeted Iraqis with prior criminal convictions as part of its effort to address a backlog of cases.

“As a result of recent negotiations between the U.S. and Iraq, Iraq has recently agreed to accept a number of Iraqi nationals subject to orders of removal,” Khaalid Walls, a spokesman for ICE’s Detroit field office, said in an email. “As part of ICE’s efforts to process the backlog of these individuals, the agency recently arrested a number of Iraqi nationals, all of whom had criminal convictions for crimes including homicide, rape, aggravated assault, kidnapping, burglary, drug trafficking, robbery, sex assault, weapons violations and other offenses.”

Many Americans agree that illegal immigrants with criminal convictions should be deported. Iraqi community leaders counter that many of the men who have been arrested are Iraqis who arrived in the United States with their families when they were children, and would otherwise be citizens had it not been for crimes, many of which they committed in their youth.

The men who were arrested “entered the country legally,” and their families are U.S. citizens, said Martin Manna, the president of the Chaldean Community Foundation in Sterling Heights, Michigan. “They’re no longer criminals,” he added. “They did their time.”

ICE officials declined to provide the number of people who were arrested and would not say whether the operation is ongoing. Lawyers and advocates in the Detroit metro area, where much of the Iraqi immigrant community is Chaldean Christian, said the number of arrests ranged anywhere from 40 people to more than 300.

Another 40 Iraqi Kurds were believed to have been picked up in the Nashville Metro area during the past week, said Abed Ayoub, the legal and policy director at Legal & Policy Director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), whose organization is working to provide legal assistance to those affected.

And in Sterling Heights, Mich., one of Eman Jajonie-Damon’s clients called his wife Monday morning to say that he had been transferred to a detention facility in Ohio on Sunday in a group of buses that had 307 Iraqis on board.

“The vast majority of those taken into custody are currently detained at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, Ohio,” ICE said.

“It was a major sweep,” said Jajonie-Damon, an immigration attorney. She said she had heard of other sweeps in California and Texas, and in Dearborn where many Iraqi Muslims live.

The dearth of information set off a wave of panic among Iraqi’s in the Detroit area, and spurred a protest Sunday in front of the local ICE detention facility.

"What am I supposed to do? I don't know what to tell my kids," Sylvia, a 44-year-old housewife and mother of three, said through sobs.

Her husband, who completed his 15-year drug sentence nearly 20 years ago, has been the family's sole breadwinner and was supposed to coach his son's Little League game on Monday, but had gone into hiding.

"He's not a menace to society," she said. "He does what he is supposed to be doing to take care of his family. What more do they want?"