President Donald Trump is facing anger and potential political blowback as his administration ramps up efforts to deport Iraqi Christians, a group he’d pledged to protect from what the U.S. calls a genocide in the Middle East.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents over the weekend detained dozens of Iraqi Christians and others to send back to Iraq. Many of them were picked up in Michigan, a swing state that Trump barely won in 2016 and the home of a sizable number of Christians from Muslim-majority countries who backed Trump during the presidential campaign.
The deportation effort has alarmed lawmakers who have tried to raise awareness about the plight of Chaldean and other Christian communities in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. Those communities have struggled to survive under the reign of the Islamic State terrorist group.
Removing the detainees from the United States “represents a death sentence should they be deported to Iraq or Syria,” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who has family and religious links to the Middle East, said in a statement.
Christian activists are scrambling to file legal challenges to the deportations and coordinate with sympathetic lawmakers. As the news has spread, so has the feeling that Trump has betrayed the affected Christian community, activists said.
“He promised he would help us, when in fact he’s exacerbated problems now by sending people back to the hands of the Islamic State,” said Steve Oshana, an Assyrian-Christian activist with the group A Demand for Action.
The crackdown is believed to be a result of disputes stemming from Trump’s executive orders that ban visitors and immigrants from several Muslim majority countries.
Initially, the so-called travel ban, which has been put on hold by the courts, included Iraq. But Iraq is reported to have gotten off the list by promising to accept people the U.S. wants deported. That means many Iraqis living in the U.S. who previously could not be deported for overstaying their visas, committing crimes, or other reasons can now be sent back.
Many of those detained had been checking in regularly with U.S. authorities for years as part of the conditions of their being allowed to stay in the United States, so immigration agents knew where to find them. There also were reports that some were detained while they were on their way to church Sunday.
The Department of Homeland Security said it was just doing its job by pursuing the deportations, which had contributed to a backlog of cases. It did not release specifics on how many people were detained or where, but activists said at least 40 people were held, and that southeastern Michigan was the main focus of the weekend raids.
“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,” DHS spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a statement. “Each of these individuals received full and fair immigration proceedings, after which a federal immigration judge found them ineligible for any form of relief under U.S. law and ordered them removed.”
But Christian activists said many of the detainees had committed lower-level offenses, and that even those who had committed serious crimes had already been punished by the U.S. legal system, often many years before. Some of the detainees are believed to have grown up in the United States and can barely speak Arabic.
Nathan Kalasho, an Iraqi-American Christian activist in Michigan, said his group had been approached by a desperate 38-year-old woman of Iraqi Christian descent whose uncle has been serving as her bone marrow donor. He has been detained and is slated for deportation.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump captured the hearts of many Americans of Middle Eastern Christian descent through his tough anti-Islamist talk. Activists familiar with the community said many in it voted for Trump because they were convinced he would stop the decimation of their people in the Middle East.
Trump’s administration has kept up the pro-Christian, anti-Islamist rhetoric. Just last week, Vice President Mike Pence denounced the “genocide” being committed by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in regions where Christians have long lived.
“Christianity faces unprecedented threats in the land where it was given birth and an exodus unrivaled since the days of Moses,” Pence said during the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.
The U.S. formally declared that the Islamic State was committing genocide against Christians and other groups last year under the Obama administration.
Trump’s efforts to impose a travel ban contributed to unease among Christians in the U.S. who trace their lineage to the Middle East. Even though the first attempt at the ban included references to giving admissions preference to religious minorities from the Middle East, the ban also halted the entry of refugees to the United States. Many refugees from the region are Christians.
But although the Trump administration has aggressively stepped up deportations of people illegally in the United States, few Christians from Iraq and other parts of the Middle East expected raids aimed at them.
“The support came from a fear in these communities,” said Philippe Nassif, executive director of In Defense of Christians. “These are people that are deeply traumatized. They latched onto his message of ‘We’re going to protect you.’”