What I learned about 5 detained Iraqi Americans from Michigan

Sep 25, 2017

On Wednesday, I traveled more than 200 miles to Youngstown, Ohio, to talk with five of the several hundred Iraqi Americans detained there mostly since June. They themselves cannot tell their stories to the public. They were so compelling that I feel I must do so.  Here are the basic facts as conveyed to me.

Three came to the U.S. with their families, as youths. They left Iraq under threatening circumstances. One left with his father, an Iraqi general fleeing his country. Others left Christian villages that had been destroyed. And another left with parents who feared that his 11-year-old brother would be kidnapped to serve in the Iraqi army.

All have been in the U.S. for more than 20 years, and two for more than 30 years.  All have families and are married with children who are American citizens. Indeed, several are from larger families, all of whom are American citizens.

The reason they have not become citizens is because in their early years in the U.S., four of them were convicted of a crime and served the sentences imposed by the court. One was never convicted. None of their crimes, as I understand them, were violent. They include drug offenses and theft.

All of them were working at the time of their detention. Over many years, they were reporting regularly as required by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As a result, they were all totally surprised when ICE showed up at their house.

Although Youngstown is more than 200 miles away, some receive visits from family. Some have not seen their children because, as one told me, “I wouldn’t want my child to see me through a glass wall.”

All fear for their safety, indeed for their lives, if they are deported to Iraq. None have any family in Iraq. One young man, a married 27-year-old father of two sons and a daughter who was born during his detention in Youngstown, told me that he is Muslim, and that he fears that the tattoo he has on his right arm of his oldest son’s name would lead ISIS members to cut off his arm, or worse.  Another said that his family’s Christian village near Mosul where his family is from has been “totally destroyed.”  A third said, “If I’m dropped off at the airport in Baghdad, I could get a cab. But where would I go? Who would I call in Iraq? My family is in America. I am an American. I’m not Iraqi. I love America.”

I have sent several letters to ICE, including a Freedom of Information Act request, asking for detailed information about all of those being detained so we know the stories of many others, and asking about the agreement reached between U.S. and Iraqi officials relating to the return of the detainees, as well as any protocols put in place that would address their safety. So far, I have not received a meaningful answer to any of these inquiries.

Some have already appealed their cases to the Board of Immigration Appeals. Others cannot do so until basic information and documents are supplied by ICE to legal counsel. Each of the detainees asked painfully why they have been incarcerated for three months or more.

ICE officials have said about their actions, “The operation in this region was specifically conducted to address the very real public safety threat represented by the criminal aliens arrested. The vast majority of those arrested in the Detroit metropolitan area have very serious felony convictions, multiple felony convictions in many cases.” And, “ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.”

These words do not match the lives of the five I met in Youngstown, just as what has been done to these lives fails to match the greatness of America.

Sander Levin, a Democrat from Royal Oak, represents Michigan's 9th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

View the original op-ed here.