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The Trump administration is being sued for rounding up Iraqi Christians

Advocates say deporting them back to Iraq would be tantamount to a “death sentence.”

CREDIT: AP/Evan Vucci
CREDIT: AP/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump’s administration is being sued for attempting to deport Chaldean Christians back to Iraq, an unexpected development for a president who vowed to assist persecuted Middle Eastern Christians.

The lawsuit, which was filed last week by the ACLU, revolves around a recent spate of detentions in the Detroit, Michigan area. Over the past week and a half, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents rounded up roughly 100 Chaldean Christians from Iraq — mostly on a Sunday — sparking a flurry of protests led by family members and advocates. ICE claims all of those arrested have outstanding removal orders and criminal offenses, but demonstrators argue most already served their time years ago, and that deporting those arrested to Iraq will only subject them to persecution from local authorities or murderous groups such as ISIS.

Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation, told ThinkProgress last week that forcing Chaldeans to return to Iraq is the “equivalent to a death sentence.”

“The government is claiming — wrongly — that a federal court lacks the power to stop what may effectively amount to a death sentence for many of these individuals.”

In response, the ACLU has helped those arrested — both Chaldeans and non-Christians — pull together a class action suit against the Trump administration, arguing that deporting them violates federal law prohibiting the removal of individuals to countries where they could face persecution or torture. The initial hearing on the case is scheduled for Wednesday, where lawyers will ask the court to issue an order preventing their deportation until authorities properly examine the severity of their plight.

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“Understandably the government is not telling the court that these Iraqi nationals will be fine if sent back,” Lee Gelernt, the ACLU lawyer arguing the case today, told ThinkProgress in an email. “Nor could the government do so given the obvious danger these individuals will face. Instead, the government is claiming — wrongly — that a federal court lacks the power to stop what may effectively amount to a death sentence for many of these individuals.”

The case also challenges whether ICE had the right to detain the arrestees in the first place, and whether it was proper for the government to transfer the detainees to a center in Ohio — far away from their lawyers.

A representative from the local ICE office told ThinkProgress they would not comment on ongoing litigation, but the government’s response to the lawsuit argues that the federal court does not have the jurisdiction to hear the case, citing a technicality.

The case puts the Trump administration in an unexpectedly awkward position, as the president has long cited Middle Eastern Christians as a group he wants to protect. During his the lead-up to his campaign for president in 2015, Trump spoke at length about the dire situation facing Middle Eastern Christians in an interview with CBN, parroting an inaccurate claim that Syrian Christians are “not allowed into” the United States.

“If I run and I win, I will be the greatest representative of the Christians that they’ve had in a long time.”

“If you’re from Syria and you’re a Christian, you cannot come into this country. And they’re the ones that are being persecuted,” he said, noting he thought it was “unbelievable” and that “[we] have to do something about it.”

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“If I run and I win, I will be the greatest representative of the Christians that they’ve had in a long time,” he added later.

Trump maintained this stance throughout his campaign, and even expressed willingness to prioritize Christian refugees from the Middle East before unveiling his Muslim Ban. Ironically, the detention of Chaldeans appears to be a direct result of the ban: Iraq was originally included in the list of nations whose denizens were barred from entering the U.S. as part of Trump’s executive order, but the Iraqi government quickly negotiated a deal that cut them out of the second version signed weeks later. According to the Washington Times, the change occurred partly because Iraq agreed to take back citizens who had orders of removal — such as the Chaldean Christians around Detroit.

Now right-wing Christian leaders who supported Trump — a group that has long trumpeted the issue of Christian persecution abroad — are calling for his administration to reexamine its deportation policy. Rev. Franklin Graham, a fierce advocate for Trump who supported the Muslim Ban from the beginning, asked the president on Friday to look into the plight of the Chaldeans.

“I understand a policy of deporting people who are here illegally and have broken the law,” Graham wrote on Facebook. “I don’t know all of the details, but I would encourage our president to give great consideration to the threat to lives of Christians in countries like Iraq.”

Other conservative Christians such as Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s political arm, have also spoken out against the possible deportations.