Detroit -- After a federal judge again halted the deportation of over 1,000 Chaldeans from the U.S., advocates for the detainees insisted their deportations should be stopped until conditions in Iraq improve.
"We're just hopeful that people continue to pray for these that are being detained, and understanding that this is a humanitarian crisis and that the administration steps in and puts a halt to these deportations," Martin Manna of the Chaldean Community Foundation told CNA.
On July 6, U.S. district court judge Mark Goldsmith extended by two weeks a halt on the deportations of Iraqi nationals from around the country.
He wrote that "there is good cause to extend the stay order beyond July 10, 2017. The Court orders that the stay of removal for all members of the class, both original members and those added by way of the expanded definition, shall now expire on July 24, 2017 at 11:59 p.m., unless otherwise ordered by the Court."
Advocates for the detainees insisted that the stay of deportation was important, as they need extra time to prove to a judge their credible fear of persecution if deported back to Iraq.
Beginning on June 11, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement began rounding up Iraqi nationals living in the Detroit metropolitan area, at their homes in front of their families or in public places. The Chaldeans, mostly Christian, had come to the U.S. legally, and were expected to complete a five-year process for eventual citizenship.
However, the Iraqis either failed to complete the process by applying for green cards, or committed a misdemeanor or felony which disqualified them from eventual citizenship. They received a final order of deportation from a federal judge.
Many of the crimes committed were decades ago, Martin Manna of the Chaldean Community Foundation insisted, and the Chaldeans served their time in jail and have been responsible members of the community since then, regularly checking in with ICE as they are required to do.
They make up a "community of entrepreneurs," he said, contributing almost $11 billion per year to the state's economy and are involved in their communities.
"The overwhelming majority of this population poses little or no threat to the United States," former acting director of ICE John Sandweg stated in a June 6 conference call with reporters.
"The use of discretion in this case is more than appropriate. When you're talking about 30-year-old nonviolent offenses, in no way, shape or form does it make sense to remove them at this time."
For instance, one of the detainees is a woman who came to the U.S. as a 5 year-old and now has three children who are U.S. citizens. She received her final order of removal in 1986 and had committed misdemeanor fraud, serving probation time and being released "on an order of supervision."
She had been "complying with this order," Manna said, yet now she is set to be deported to Iraq.
Iraq had initially refused to accept the Chaldeans, but recently agreed to do so as a condition of the U.S. removing Iraq from the list of countries on President Donald Trump's travel ban. In that executive order on national security, President Trump had listed several countries from which nationals could not enter the U.S. except with certain diplomatic visas.
Since June 11, over 1,000 Iraqi nationals from all over the U.S. have been detained by ICE and slated for deportation to Iraq.
U.S. bishops have advocated for a halt to the deportation of the Chaldeans, at least until they would no longer have a credible fear of persecution in Iraq.
In a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chair of the bishops' migration committee, and Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., chair of the bishops' international justice and peace committee, insisted that the administration stop the deportations.
"Returning religious minorities to Iraq at this time, without specific plans for protection, does not appear consistent with our concerns about genocide and persecution of Christians in Iraq," they wrote.
"For decades, many of these Christians sought legal refuge in the United States. Like other refugees from various countries of origins, they have become integrated into American communities."
Advocates for the Chaldeans have also been in talks with officials in the Trump administration, and have asked for a temporary protected status to be granted to the detainees from the President or the Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.
Overall, the situation for Christians in Iraq has deteriorated significantly since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and fell sharply with the rise of ISIS in 2014. While an estimated 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq in 2003, less than 200,000 live there now. There were over 340 churches in Iraq in 2003, and only just over 40 today.
Christians have also been victims of genocide. In 2016, the U.S. State Department declared that the Islamic State was committing genocide against Christians, Shi'a Muslims, and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria. ISIS still controls territory in Iraq.
And recently, a prominent Shi'a leader in Iraq, Sheikh Alaa al-Moussawi, was sued by Christian families for remarks he made that Christians there were "infidels." He called for "jihad" against Christians.
"The threat of persecution is real and severe in this case," Sandweg insisted of the deportations of the Iraqis, adding that "the U.S. government has long used its discretion to delay the removal of vulnerable populations until such time as those individuals face no threat in their home country."
"Iraq cannot guarantee the safety of these Christians and many face persecution and death for their religious beliefs," Martin Manna stated on a June 6 conference call with reporters. "There is no homeland remaining for the Christian community in Iraq because of the ongoing persecution."
The ACLU of Michigan, which represented some of the Detroit-area Chaldeans in court, applauded the additional two week stay, adding that "we must ensure that our immigration policy doesn't operate as a death sentence for anyone."