A diverse team works to defend Iraqi immigrants from deportation.
Attorney Nora Youkhana calls it “that day.” It was Sunday, June 11, 2017, the day she received frantic telephone calls from people in her Iraqi Christian community.
Early that morning, officers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had begun arresting people born in Iraq who had lived in the Detroit area for decades. These were longtime Michigan residents who had old — often very old —deportation orders. Nearly all legal immigrants, they’d run afoul of immigration law sometime in the past several decades. But they’d never been deported and lived in their communities, raising families, working and reporting periodically to ICE.
Now everything was changed: Picked up on Sunday, the detainees expected to be on airplanes to Iraq on Thursday or Friday. They needed immediate help.
As the day wore on and the number of arrests increased, frightened people called on Youkhana and her friend from law school, Nadine Yousif Kalasho, for information and help. The two young attorneys staff an office called CODE Legal Aid that provides legal advice to the community. By 6 p.m. that day, Youkhana and Kalasho had opened their office, working to organize a response to the crisis.
All Hands On Deck
Realizing they needed allies in this fight, they called for reinforcements. Youkhana reached out to Bonsitu Kitaba, another law school friend who works at ACLU of Michigan.
“I was at home on June 11 when I got a frantic call from Nora (Youkhana). She wanted to know certain aspects of immigration law,” Kitaba recalls. “Would ICE respect a church as a sanctuary if immigrants hide there? Would ICE respect the property of a church and not go inside to arrest people?
“I asked, ‘What is going on?’ That’s when I found out that more than 100 Iraqis, mostly from the Chaldean community, had been arrested.”
Kitaba told Mike Steinberg, legal director of ACLU of Michigan. Steinberg assessed the situation, mobilized resources from within the ACLU and called for additional help from other local attorneys.
Miriam Aukerman of the ACLU of Michigan, Judy Rabinovitz of the national ACLU Immigrant Rights Project, Margo Schlanger, professor at the University of Michigan Law School, and Wendolyn Richard and Kimberly Scott from the law firm of Miller Canfield joined the effort.
Nationwide, ICE has detained more than 300 Iraqi nationals, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Kurds and Christians since June. Nearly half were Michigan residents. They were facing deportation without ever having an opportunity to show the immigration courts that they faced persecution, torture and murder if returned to Iraq, the country many had left as small children decades ago.
ICE intended to deport the detainees to Iraq without giving them the opportunity to contest their deportation in court. The litigation team immediately contested the process. The young attorneys lived this crisis round the clock, leaving the office only to go change their clothes and come right back.
Youkhana’s fiancé, Justin Hanna, works at the law firm of Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss. When he told founding partner Ira Jaffe about the situation, Jaffe asked, “How can I help?”
A GoFundMe.com project was started to raise funds for detainees who could not afford to hire immigration attorneys. Jaffe contributed $10,000.
“For detainees who could not afford immigration attorneys, Jaffe filed more than 15 motions to reopen on an emergency basis to delay immediate deportations,” Youkhana says. “We followed up with requests for a stay of removal.
“The goal of these filings is to slow down the process so that people have time to litigate in immigration courts,” she adds. “If not for this flurry of intense activity, people might have been sent to Iraq without the chance to dispute the order in court at all.”
Going To Court
But the efforts in immigration court weren’t working; the Detroit Immigration Court was rejecting motions to reopen the old immigration cases, and the threat of deportation without any chance to present grew sharper.
In those first frantic days, Schlanger, Aukerman, Scott and Rabinovitz led the effort to mobilize the federal courts on behalf of the detainees.
Meanwhile, Youkhana and Kalasho provided a constant flow of information to detainees, their families and the community.
The team went into Federal District Court and got the emergency order they sought, an immediate stay of removal from Judge Mark Goldsmith that applied nationwide to 1,400 Iraqis with final orders of removal entered prior to summer 2017.
“The District Court recognized a right to pause the government’s efforts to remove the Iraqis so they could go to immigration court to contest their orders of removal,” Schlanger says.
What had changed, after all these decades, to empower ICE to arrest all these Iraqi nationals?
Schlanger gives the background: “Over the years, some Iraqi nationals in America have been held to be removable by American courts. However, they could not actually be removed because Iraq declined to allow repatriation of any but the most recent arrivals.
“Over the decades, many Iraqi nationals remained in the United States with a formal order of removal, but no actual prospect of being removed,” she continues. “Most of these people reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement regularly and went about their lives in the USA. They raised families, built businesses, worked and paid taxes.”
On March 12, 2017, though, ICE reported that Iraq agreed to accept a number of Iraqi nationals subject to removal.
According to Schlanger, Iraq was one of the nations listed on President Trump’s initial travel ban, and the government of Iraq strongly objected. To get out of the travel ban, Iraq agreed to allow repatriation of at least some Iraqis.
So, ICE arrested people like Usama (Sam) Hamama, who became the lead plaintiff of those detained by ICE, in a case named Hamama vs. Adducci.
But, Schlanger says, “There was no legitimate reason for ICE’s mad dash to deportation; each of the folks they arrested deserved a chance to explain why their deportation was no longer lawful in light of current law and current circumstances.”
Rebecca Adducci, field office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Detroit, disagreed. “The operation in this region was specifically conducted to address the very real public safety threat represented by the criminal aliens arrested,” she says. “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,” she adds.
Judge Goldsmith sided with the ACLU and the Iraqis. His order staying removal has been in operation since June and has given each of the detainees the chance to seek to reopen his or her immigration case. Many have won both reopening and the case itself and have been granted asylum or won other protection against removal to Iraq. For others, the fight is continuing. Judge Goldsmith’s order will be reviewed by the Court of Appeals this spring.
Hamama was picked up by ICE at his home on Sunday morning, June 11, as he was getting dressed to take his daughter to her soccer team banquet. The ICE agents allowed him to finish getting dressed, handcuffed him and took him away.
He’d been in the United States for a long time; the last time he was in Iraq was 1974, when he was about 12 years old. Since then, he has married, raised four children, started businesses here, paid his taxes and become a significant presence in his church. His current business, a food service company, has 38 employees.
But 30 years ago, he got into trouble with the law. In a road rage incident, he displayed a gun. It wasn’t loaded; no one was hurt, but he served part of a two-year prison sentence.
Years later, the U.S. government ruled that the offense qualified him for deportation. In 2011, the government began requiring him to check in with immigration every year, which he did faithfully, until he was arrested last June. His application for his immigration case to be reopened is still pending in the immigration court.
Dangers In Iraq
The team fighting the deportation orders has an acute sense of the danger faced by Iraqi-Americans if they get sent back to Iraq. The U.S. State Department posted a “do not travel to Iraq” advisory on Jan. 10, 2018.
“For detainees, it is a life-or-death case,” Steinberg says. “But for our ability to get an injunction, these people will get returned to Iraq, where they may well be persecuted, tortured or killed.
“People who have lived in the United States for decades are Americans,” he adds. “They will be perceived as Americans in the eyes of Iraqis. Whether they are Christian or Muslim, they face grave danger.”
According to Steinberg, an additional threat hangs over Christians. “Chaldeans in Iraq have been persecuted. Those who live there now are in grave danger, targeted by various extremist groups; deportees from the USA would be prime targets.”
Hamama, for example, could never just smoothly transition into the Iraqi public. He does not even speak Arabic, according to the ACLU. Speaking his native language, Aramaic, would identify him as a Christian at once.
Once the team succeeded in pausing the deportations, the next step was to fight detention. After being taken in June, ICE held Sam Hamama in detention for more than six months — and wanted to hold him in detention until he could be deported. The same was true for nearly all the other 300 detainees.
So, the ACLU attorneys went back into U.S. District Court and argued that the Constitution forbids detention without an individualized hearing justifying that detention is necessary. Again, they won: Judge Goldsmith ordered the government to hold individualized bond hearings.
For Sam Hamama, ICE attorneys argued that he was a flight risk, even though he has a home in West Bloomfield, a business and extensive ties in the area. Immigration Judge Mark Jebson granted a bond of $100,000, and Hamama was released on Feb. 2, 2018. He still faces the threat of deportation, but he doesn’t have to fight his case from jail. All told, about half the detainees have gotten released on bond. This order, too, will be reviewed by the Court of Appeals this spring.
Keeping The Families Informed
“The Hamama litigation team, including CODE Legal, held a dinner on March 3 for the families of detainees, especially for those who are still held in custody, to update them on developments in the case,” Schlanger says. “Members of our congregation baked hamentashen for dessert for the meal.”
Youkhana appreciated the gesture. “It was just the sweetest thing,” she says. “They went to the trouble of making all these pastries for us. It was such a touching example of interfaith cooperation. And the pastries were delicious.”
Yousif Kalasho reflects on the process: “We never considered the extent to which our involvement would lead. It was more a matter of responsibility toward the community. Within days, organizing turned to action, despair turned to hope, and a small legal aid clinic housed in a school became co-counsel to a federal case that could define our country’s moral duty of human rights and due process.”
Louis Finkelman Contributing Writer
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