Iraqi Christians saw Trump as their saviour. Now he is deporting them

Iraqi Christians saw Trump as their saviour. Now he is deporting them
Jimmy Aldaoud's tragic death casts light on the plight of Iraqi Chaldean deportees, a community that once saw Donald Trump as their saviour.
6 min read
14 August, 2019
Dozens of Iraqi Chaldeans were detained in US immigration raids in 2017. [Getty]
Jimmy Aldaoud had begged US authorities not to deport him to Iraq. Weeks later, alone and in need of medical treatment, the 41-year-old died in a country he had never before set foot in.

Born in Greece to Iraqi Christian parents from the Chaldean community, Aldaoud had arrived in the United States as a baby via a refugee resettlement programme.

He lived in America his whole life, spoke no Arabic, and had no family in Iraq. Deported to Najaf – over 100 kilometres south of Baghdad – with just the clothes on his back, $50 in his pocket, and some insulin, he died of complications stemming from diabetes.

Since news of his death came to light, video footage emerged of Aldaoud, forlorn and disheveled, living on the streets.

"I was deported two and a half weeks ago. I begged them, I said, 'Please I've never seen that country, I've never been there.' However they forced me and I'm here now" he told the camera.

"And I don't understand the language, anything. I've been sleeping in the street. I'm diabetic. I take insulin shots. I've been throwing up, throwing up, sleeping in the streets, trying to find something to eat."

The Iraqi Chaldean community finds itself in the crosshairs of hardline US immigration policies, despite once proclaiming Trump as their saviour

Alongside images of overcrowded detention facilities and harrowing photos of drowned migrant children, the video bears powerful visual testament to the Trump administration's punitive immigration policies, a centrepiece of his divisive presidential campaign.

Trump's immigration strategy has seen a major policy shift that has banned nationals from Muslim-majority countries, reduced refugee admissions, and ramped up arrests of unauthorised immigrants.

The Iraqi Chaldean community now finds itself in the crosshairs of these hardline nationalist immigration policies, despite once proclaiming Trump as their saviour.

The Iraqi Chaldean community

Michigan's 100,000-strong Chaldean community, an Aramaic-speaking Catholic sect composed mainly of ethnic Assyrians, is the largest outside of Iraq. 

Waves of westward migration began in the 1970s and 1980s, as Iraqi Christians fled anti-Assyrian killings, the Iran-Iraq conflict, and the Gulf War.

Prior to the US invasion, around 1.5 million Chaldeans lived in Iraq. But since the war, and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State group (IS) and sectarian militias, an estimated 80 percent have fled the country.

Historically vulnerable to the interplay of politics and religion in Iraq, the Chaldean community continues to live at a complex crossroads in America's political system, navigating their collective identity according to socio-political demands.

The Chaldean community has consistently supported the Republican Party, and emphatically backed Trump in the 2016 election. 

Fears of the Islamic State group, ongoing Christian persecution in the Middle East, and the Democrat's pro-abortion stance, all drove record numbers to the voting booths.

Energised by the Republican Party's overt pledge to protect Christians in the Middle East, their support proved a deciding factor in Trump's narrow Michigan victory, a swing state which he won by less than 10,000 votes.

'Chaldeans for Trump' signs became a regular fixture at his rallies, while a Chaldean priest even publicly blessed the presidential candidate on the campaign trail.

Few in the community expected that Trump's immigration crackdown would affect them, on the contrary, it was marketed in part as targeting so-called radical Islamists who they feared.

But months after his inauguration, the mass arrests began.

'You vowed to protect us'

Iraq's government had long refused to repatriate Iraqi nationals involuntarily returned by US authorities, citing humanitarian concerns and bureaucratic difficulties.

But all that changed when Trump took office.

After signing an executive order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, Trump promised to remove Iraq if it facilitated forced repatriations.

Baghdad agreed, and initially accepted a small charter plane of deportees. When Trump signed a new executive order in March – after a federal court blocked the first travel ban – Iraq was removed from the list.

Prior to the US invasion, around 1.5 million Chaldeans lived in Iraq. But since the war, and the subsequent rise of IS and sectarian militias, an estimated 80% have fled the country

In the months to come, the Iraqi Chaldean community found itself in the eye of an immigration storm.

Targeting homes and businesses in Michigan and the Detroit area, some 350 Chaldean and Iraqi men were detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the summer of 2017.

Over 1,400 Iraqis were targeted for deportation, with Jimmy Aldaoud one of the many swept up in the mass raids by US immigration authorities.

Most had arrived legally in the US as refugees decades ago, but were denied citizenship after committing crimes, ranging from minor to more serious, that made them eligible for deportation.

As a hard-fought legal battle to prevent the deportations began, the Iraqi Chaldean community recoiled in shock.

Protesters began organising in the Detroit area, carrying signs directed at the US president that read 'You vowed to protect us' and 'Chaldean Lives Matter'.

But the news of Aldaoud's death provided a stark reminder to Chaldeans of Trump's broken promise to protect Christian minorities. It is also punctuated the dangers facing their own relatives who faced deportation.

'Death sentence'

Some 130 Iraqi Christians have already been deported under the Trump administration. While many were former business owners, family men, or pillars of their community, now their daily routine consists mainly of survival.

"The reality is they cannot blend in any more in Iraqi society," Joseph Kassab, the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute's founder, told British media.

"They do not speak the Arabic language, and they can be easily identified for kidnapping, killing, or for other punishment."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been tracking the cases of those already deported, saying many have been "beaten, shot" or "disappeared" after returning.

Others simply refuse to leave their homes out of fear, the ACLU says, with some "holed up in homes with machine guns".

Navigating their new lives is fraught with danger, as many lack civil documentation which in effect renders them stateless.

The lack of identity documents, together with obvious Christian markers such as crucifix tattoos, leaves them at the mercy of sectarian militias manning the labyrinth of checkpoints across the country.

Their vulnerable status also puts them at risk of arbitrary detention by authorities, with mistreatment and torture rife.

"International law is clear that no individual can be sent back to a country where they are in danger of being tortured," Human Rights Watch said in a report last year. 

"It is shameful that US officials are using threats and intimidation to force Iraqis to return under these conditions."

As the tragic death of Jimmy Aldaoud casts light once more on the plight of Iraqi Chaldean deportees, those fighting to protect the community fear more will suffer the same fate.

"We knew he would not survive if deported," Miriam Aukerman, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said.

"What we don't know is how many more people ICE will send to their deaths."

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