By Lauren del Valle and Sonia Moghe
June 16, 2017
Detroit (CNN) Iraqi native Atheer Ali fled to Michigan as a child nearly three decades ago. The 40-year-old man has a tattoo of a cross on his shoulder, a nod to his faith.
Now he fears his visible symbol of Christianity will make him a target for violence and persecution if he’s deported back to the Muslim-majority nation following his detention by immigration officials in Detroit this week.
Ali is one of more than 100 Iraqis in Michigan and northern Ohio under the jurisdiction of Detroit’s Immigration Customs Enforcement office who have been targeted for deportation. ICE says most have criminal records.
The father of one has lived in the United States since 1992. His criminal history includes a felony conviction for breaking and entering in 1996, and misdemeanor convictions for possession of marijuana more than a decade later, according to the ACLU, which filed a class action lawsuit Thursday to stop the deportations.
Muslims part of lawsuit
Brianna Al-Dilami’s husband is one of the seven people named in the suit.
The two met the day Ali Al-Dilami came to America in 1998, and have been together ever since.
But her husband was arrested by US immigration officers last weekend, and she has been searching for answers about his fate, fearing he’ll be sent back to Iraq.
Ali Al-Dilaimi and his wife, Brianna.
The class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Michigan comprises five Christian petitioners and two Muslims, including Al-Dilami.
In the complaint, the ACLU argues it is illegal to deport the detainees without giving them an opportunity to prove they could face torture or death if returned to Iraq.
The ACLU complaint was filed against Rebecca Adducci, the director of the ICE Detroit district office. It requested a Friday hearing for the detainees.
Many of the petitioners are Chaldeans, an Iraqi Christian group that has historically faced problems in Iraq. The Detroit metropolitan area is home to the largest US group of Chaldeans.
“Not only is it immoral to send people to a country where they are likely to be violently persecuted, it expressly violates United States and international law and treaties,” Kary Moss, executive director for the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement. “We are hoping that the courts will recognize the extreme danger that deportation to Iraq would pose for these individuals. Our immigration policy shouldn’t amount to a death sentence for anyone.”
Nearly 200 arrests
ICE has arrested 199 Iraqi nationals since May, 114 of them from Detroit , according to its press secretary Gillian Christensen.
Iraq recently agreed to accept deportees in exchange for being removed from the countries listed in President Donald Trump’s travel ban. That agreement triggered a shift in the focus of ICE raids, Christensen said in a statement.
“The vast majority of those arrested [in] the Detroit metropolitan area have very serious felony convictions, multiple felony convictions in many cases. I applaud the efforts of the law enforcement personnel who, day in and day out, put their lives on the line to protect this community,” Christensen said.
ACLU lawyers acknowledge the criminal history of those arrested, but say most of the detainees have complied with their conditions of supervision and have had no further run-ins with the law, according to the news release.
Ali Al-Dilami served five months of a one-year sentence for an assault that happened 17 years ago and his record was later expunged, according to the complaint filing.
He has a history of mild heart attacks, according to his family, and had a seizure when officials arrested him. He was initially hospitalized, but now awaits his fate in a detention center in Youngstown, Ohio.
Ali Al-Dilaimi and son Jabril, 3. Their mother is ready to move both her sons to Iraq if their father is deported.
His wife, an American citizen born and raised in Ohio, has prepared travel documents for herself and the couple’s two sons in case her husband is sent back to Iraq.
“If he leaves on a Tuesday, I’m leaving on a Thursday. I cannot let this government tear our family apart. The only option we have is to pack up and go, and hope to come back to America one day and see my family,” Brianna Al-Dilami said.
‘Scared to death’
Family members are anxiously searching for answers from the government, worried they’ll run out of time to keep their loved ones in the United States.
The sprawling home of Shoki Konja, 57, with its perfectly manicured lawn and ornate furnishings, is his symbol of the American dream. He and his brother, Najah, immigrated to the United States from Tel Kaif, Iraq, nearly 40 years ago with their family. Slowly, decade by decade, hundreds of his family, who are Chaldeans, found their way to the United States, where they felt safer.
But now Najah Konja, 55, does not feel safe. He calls his brother from the ICE detention center in Youngstown.
“Everyone here like me is scared to death,” Najah Konja said. “Please don’t send us to Iraq, because you are sending us to our death.”
‘Is this United States?’
Najah Konja has a criminal record. After coming to the country as a 15-year-old, his brother said he fell in with the wrong crowd. He was convicted of drug conspiracy charges as a 21-year-old and spent about 20 years behind bars. Since getting out, his brother said, he has turned his life around. He owns a tobacco shop in the Detroit area. He’s engaged and has been staying out of trouble. He lost the ability to have a Green Card because of his conviction, but he has been checking in annually with ICE, most recently in November.
Then, on Sunday, he was awakened at home and taken into custody and told he would be deported back to Iraq, where he has no family, does not know the language and has not lived for 40 years.
“Is this United States?” Shoki Konja asked. “Is this what this country is about?”
Shoki Konja thought the country was in good hands. He voted for Donald Trump in the November election, and said he agreed with Trump’s promises to deport troublesome undocumented immigrants.
“The honest truth, we thought they (were) picking up hard-core criminals,” Shoki Konja said. “We thought they (were) not going to touch innocent people, or people who turned their life around.”
Two days before Najah Konja was picked up, the US Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review Board of Immigration Appeals agreed to reopen his Green Card case. Now that case is in limbo.
Chaldeans in the Detroit area
Chaldean leaders are pursuing any possible special consideration for the members of their community at risk of being sent back to Iraq, according to Chaldean Community Foundation President Martin Manna.
The community has reached out to the US State Department and the US Department of Homeland Security, but have yet to make headway, Manna said.
“We are pleading with the government to reconsider,” Manna said.
Community members were wary of President Trump’s campaign rhetoric, Manna said, but were completely caught off guard by the sudden ICE raids.
The Detroit metropolitan area is home to over 150,000 Chaldeans, according to Manna. Since 2007, over 30,000 Chaldean refugees have come into the area, fleeing violent conditions in Iraq.
The biggest wave of Chaldeans first settled in Detroit in the late 1960s, escaping the regime of Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, and later Saddam Hussein, according to Manna. Detroit was a good fit for the community because of the job opportunities in the city and its proximity to Canada, where other Chaldean communities grew over the years, he said.
“People who came as children, this is the only country that they know. They’re culturally illiterate and fearing being killed. Now we’re hoping and praying there will be some relief. They are not a threat to national security,” Manna said.
CNN’s Sonia Moghe reported from Detroit, Lauren del Valle wrote and reported from New York. CNN’s Faith Karimi contributed to this report
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