Iraqi Christians to Trump: Don’t forget us

Michigan’s Middle East Christians helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency. They could help make him a one-term president if he lets them down.

MACOMB COUNTY, Mich. — If you are looking for early clues about whether President Trump will win re-election in 2020, you’d do well to look to an immigration detention facility in Youngstown, Ohio, where nearly 200 Iraqi Christians are imprisoned. Their fate will profoundly influence how Trump is perceived by one of his most loyal voting blocks, and thus help determine whether he wins re-election in 2020. 

Most of the detained are Chaldeans, who practice Eastern Rite Catholicism, from the Detroit metro area. 

Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have resettled in the United States in recent decades, first to flee the chaos of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, then to avoid the genocidal intentions of the Islamic State and other jihadist Islamic groups.

About 120,000 Chaldeans live in southeast Michigan, the largest concentration of Chaldeans anywhere in the U.S. They have erected churches, started businesses, and become pillars of their communities.

Chaldeans have also become reliable supporters of Republican political candidates, including, last year, of Donald Trump. Many Chaldeans liked Trump’s pro-life views and generally conservative policy positions.

But most were persuaded to vote for him after he promised to protect them.

On June 11, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested and detained 114 Detroit-area Chaldeans in immigration raids. Another 85 Iraqis from other parts of the country have also been incarcerated. Most of the men (and a couple of women) came to the U.S. legally and acquired green cards, which were revoked after they were convicted of crimes. But these men and women weren’t deported because Iraq refused to take them.

That changed in February, when the Iraqi government agreed to accept these immigrants in exchange for being dropped from the list of countries on Trump’s travel ban. The immigrants were taken to a detention center in Youngstown, Ohio, where they now await deportation.

Some of the detained immigrants committed murder and rape. But most committed lesser, non-violent crimes, paid their debt to society, formed families, and began contributing to their communities.

Hadeel Khalasawi falls into the latter category. I learned of Hadeel’s story when my brother, Jordan, and I visited his family at Kabob And More, their restaurant in Hazel Park, Mich.

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Hadeel immigrated to the U.S. as a child. When he was 17 years old, Hadeel committed a nonviolent gun crime and spent the next 9 years in prison. With his criminal conviction, Hadeel lost his permanent resident status.

But he was never forced to leave the country, and over the next couple decades, Hadeel married, had two children, and became a stepfather to his wife Sumar’s daughter, Marcella.

Sumar, Marcella, and Sumar and Hadeel’s two sons, Mariano and Malano, are U.S. citizens. Sumar doesn’t protest the U.S. government’s right to deport criminal immigrants who have lost their permanent resident status. But she says that it’s wrong that the government waited so long to do so. “They should have deported them from day one after they committed their crimes,” she said.

“If they didn’t want them in this country, they should have sent them back, not let them go and after 20 or 30 years come and snatch them away from us and break our hearts. …My husband did make mistakes. He paid for his crimes. They let him out. He started a family. And now they just came after we built this life together. 

What’s more, Sumar and other Chaldeans say, their loved ones face near-certain death in Iraq, where the U.S. government has declared a genocide is taking place against Christians and other religious minorities. “Eventually he’s going to get killed,” Sumar said of Hadeel if he is forced to return to Iraq. “My husband has tattoos of Christianity. He’s a target there after he goes there.”

“This is my home, this is his home,” she said of the U.S.. “He came here when he was four. He doesn’t know nothing about Iraq.”

Sumar blames the Trump administration for her family’s predicament. “Mr. Trump promised he would help the Chaldean community, he said this is his number one priority, to help them. That was the first thing he said, that he was going to help them. But he did the opposite.”

On the campaign trail, Trump regularly lamented the deaths of Middle Eastern Christians at the hands of Islamic jihadists, and promised that if he became president he would protect them.

On Election Day, Trump became the first Republican to win Michigan in nearly 30 years. Trump won Michigan by winning Macomb County, a county that had twice voted for Barack Obama. Trump’s 48,000-vote edge here more than eclipsed his 13,107-vote advantage statewide. 

Trump won Macomb by winning over its white working-class population with promises to restrict immigration and bring back jobs. But he also won by attracting the support of Chaldeans, who came out like never before to vote for Trump. One Chaldean woman I spoke with reckons that 80 percent of Michigan’s Chaldeans voted for Trump, “all on the promise that he would protect Christians in the Middle East.”

Hadeel’s step-daughter, Marcella said it “felt like a really big piece of me was stripped away” when her father was taken away in June. “He took a piece of all of us with him. He was the one to wake me up in the morning, take me out to eat… We did everything together. He is my father, not biologically, but he earned the privilege to be my father.” 

“I blame Trump,” Marcella added. “[Hadeel] has a family. All of them have families…and he took away the one thing that built the family: the father.”

Sumar added, “We respect this country, we love it. We pay our taxes. We voted for Trump because the things he said and he lied to us. I’m so embarrassed to say this but our president lied to us. 

Later that day, I spoke with Hadeel, who called in from the detention center. Hadeel said he hopes Trump “could find it in his heart to look over this, and give us a second chance.”

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The Trump campaign also repeatedly called for the creation of safe zones for persecuted people across the Middle East. Many Chaldeans and other Christians have been calling for a safe haven for Christians in the Nineveh Plain, the establishment of which many Iraqi Christians see as their only chance of survival there. Eighteen months ago, Congress and the U.S. State Department declared that a genocide is taking place against Christians and other religious minorities in parts of Syria and Iraq.

Nahren Anweya, an Assyrian-Christian activist in Macomb County, believes the Obama administration didn’t do enough to help persecuted Christians. She became an outspoken supporter of Trump, who pledged to take up the Iraqi Christian cause. Anweya’s activism included speaking at several Trump campaign rallies in Michigan and appearing as a surrogate on national media outlets.

Many Iraqi Christians voted for Trump with the expectation that he would champion the creation of a safe haven for their loved ones in Iraq, she said, “and I really hope he does not let us down.”

“We are still waiting,” she said when I met her at her home in Sterling Heights, Mich. “We hope that we are not let down. It’s a life and death situation for us. We still have hope for him and we’re praying everyday that he will follow through.”

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It seems crass to mention politics when discussing the plight of hundreds of families and the fate of entire religious and ethnic groups. But the political implications for Trump are stark. Macomb County was one of three counties in three states that determined the 2016 election, and the Chaldeans played a leading role in propelling Trump to his improbable victory. As a result, they could play a leading role in making him a one-term president if he lets them down.

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