Iraqi Christians in the United States cheered Trump’s promises to protect religious minorities. Now many feel betrayed.
- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy, where she produces breaking news and original reports with a particular focus on immigration, counterterrorism, and border security policy. Previously, Kavitha worked at New York magazine’s Bedford + Bowery blog, CNNMoney, The Associated Press in Italy, and Fareed Zakaria GPS and has freelanced from Italy and Germany for publications like Quartz, Al Jazeera America, OZY, and GlobalPost/PRI. In 2015, she was awarded a Fulbright trip to Germany, as well as a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation to report on migration and integration. She also reported from Senegal with a grant from the Bureau for International Reporting in 2014. Kavitha studied European history at Columbia University and holds a master’s degree in journalism and European studies from New York University. She has studied in Italy and Peru and speaks Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French.
An Iraqi Christian who served a lengthy prison sentence for shooting a Michigan police officer is trying to stave off imminent deportation to Iraq, a country he left when he was five.
The case of Nahihd Shaou, a 55-year-old U.S. Army veteran who doesn’t speak Arabic, could be a test of the Trump administration’s resolve to expel immigrants with criminal backgrounds from the United States — even if deportation puts their lives at risk.
Shaou is a Chaldean Christian, a religious and ethnic minority in Iraq that is often vulnerable to kidnappings, torture, and killings by the Islamic State and local militias. His Western mannerisms and service in the U.S. military could also mark him as an easy target in Iraq, Shaou and his advocates said.
“It will be much more dangerous for someone like myself in Iraq,” said Shaou, speaking from a detention center in Louisiana. “I’d be more than a fish out of water.”
In 1983, Shaou pleaded guilty to two armed robberies and shooting and wounding a police officer outside Detroit after robbing a McDonald’s restaurant. He was 20-years-old at the time of his crime and had been recently honorably discharged from the Army for suffering PTSD after serving in South Korea’s demilitarized zone. Shaou joined the U.S. Army when he was 17, and his applications for U.S. citizenship was put on hold when he was deployed overseas.
After serving a nearly 34-year prison sentence, he was scheduled to be deported Monday, but a last-minute ruling by the Board of Immigration Appeals granted his lawyer a sliver of time to argue that his client should not be returned to Iraq because of the risks of persecution.
“If this is simply about his character and background then we’ve lost,” Rich Kent, Shaou’s lawyer, said. “But this is about the conditions we are sending people back to. We are imposing a death penalty through the backdoor.”
The Obama administration worked aggressively to expel immigrants who committed violent or terror-related crimes. But in recent years, Iraqis like Shaou had a good chance of receiving temporary permission to remain in the United States because Iraq refused to accept deportees and the administration didn’t push the issue. Iraqi ex-convicts were typically released under supervisory probation after serving their sentences, a policy that allowed them to live and work in the United States under a temporary status, as long as they checked in periodically with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
But Iraq recently reversed its policy on receiving deportees following outrage over Trump’s inclusion of their country in his first immigration travel ban. In exchange for Iraq’s removal from the list, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi agreed in March to start accepting Iraqi deportees. In addition to Shaou, around 300 Iraqi Christians around Detroit have been told they they are also likely to face deportation. It is not clear if they have criminal records.
The end of Shaou’s prison term also coincided with the Trump administration’s stepped-up focus on deporting immigrants who have committed crimes. Past administrations traditionally considered the security situation in a home country before ordering deportations, said John Sandweg, a former acting director at ICE during the Obama administration.
“It was not at all uncommon for us to exercise discretion on behalf of individuals even when they were a priority for deportation when they were likely to face persecution in their home countries,” he told Foreign Policy.
A spokesperson for ICE said the same policy applies. “The U.S. government provides each individual an opportunity to apply and be considered for all relief,” he said.
But Trump’s harder line on illegal immigration worries immigrant advocates who say the administration seems prepared to downplay such humanitarian concerns.
On the campaign trail, Trump, like other Republican candidates, expressed support for persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. Yet it’s unclear whether that rhetorical support will extend to immigrants who committed serious crimes. Shaou’s case is complicated by the gravity of his crime.
“The difficulty in the case lies in four words: He shot a cop,” said Kent, Shaou’s lawyer.
The police officer, Michael Elliot, was shot in the chest. Now retired, he told The Detroit News he has no sympathy for Shaou. “He made those choices,” Elliott said.
Like many Iraqi Christian Chaldeans, Shaou rooted for Trump in the last election because of his support for the U.S. military, and comments supporting persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East. His case has left many of the 400,000 or so Iraqi Christian Americans wondering whether the new president will live up to his pledge to protect persecuted religious minorities.
Iraqi Chaldeans “were promised Christians would be free, would be safe and secure, yet the policies say otherwise,” James Elia, an advocate for Iraqi-American Chaldeans and a Democratic candidate for city council in El Cajon, Ca.
Advocates and family members argued that Shaou, with his service to the U.S. Army, long roots in the United States, and exemplary record in prison, deserves the same chance to start over in the United States as other inmates who served their sentences. They are pleading with lawmakers in Congress to draft a bill for humanitarian relief based on Shaou’s minority status in Iraq.
“This was a serious crime but it was 34 years ago and I think that humans have the capacity to change. People should not be singularly defined by their worst action,” said Tiara Shaya, Shaou’s niece, who lives in California.
Shaou’s family said they have not had any contact with the Iraqi government regarding his deportation, and don’t have any family members in Iraq because the entire family are now American citizens.
Shaou said he regrets his crime every day. Yet he pleaded for an opportunity to redeem himself on U.S. soil instead of being sent to Iraq.
“I’m not a monster, I’m a civilized compassionate human being that wants nothing more than a chance to prove myself and a chance to live what’s left of my life, and a chance for my family to be happy again,” he said.
This post was updated at 3:07 p.m. EST. Tiara Shaya said “people should not be singularly defined by their worst action,” not “their actions.”
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