Chicago lawyer finds mission in helping Iraqi Christian refugees

San Diego – The immigration lawyer and his client huddled at the defense bench in federal court, whispering in Aramaic.
Robert DeKelaita, born and baptized Christian in Iraq and raised in the US, dwarfed his client, a frightened young Iraqi named Yousif Ibrahim.

Mr. Ibrahim, a Christian, had been jailed as a “deportable/inadmissible alien” since walking across the US-Mexican border in May.

Minutes later, Mr. DeKelaita described how Ibrahim’s father had been killed by Muslim insurgents in Iraq — because he was a Christian working for the UN and because another son had served in the US armed forces.

“He cannot go back to Iraq…. He has established credible fear” of persecution, DeKelaita told the immigration judge.

When the judge set a new hearing, DeKelaita told Ibrahim he would be freed.

Over the past decade, DeKelaita has obtained asylum for hundreds of Iraqi Christians facing deportation here, after fleeing religious persecution in Iraq.

But each success leaves DeKelaita conflicted. “My heart is wedded to the idea that they should be safe and secure in their own homeland,” DeKelaita says inside his law office in Skokie, Ill. “What I’m doing is temporary.”

Repressed under Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Christian population has been decimated since the US invasion in 2003. Muslim extremists have murdered priests and burned Christian churches, shops, and homes. Priests in Iraq estimate that fewer than 500,000 Christians remain, about a third of the number before 2003.

DeKelaita is among a handful of immigration lawyers who specialize in representing Iraqi Christians.

“These are my people. I don’t even have to ask them what they’ve been through,” he says.

DeKelaita’s family left Iraq in 1973. He learned English in the Chicago public schools, and earned a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Loyola University. He sees dozens of asylum cases every month.

More than 235,000 Iraqi refugees, most in Syria and Jordan, are seeking resettlement, according to the United Nations. Just 2,631 Iraqis were admitted for resettlement in the US last year. This year, 819 Iraqis have been admitted.

Anaam Merza Khoshaba sat wringing her hands outside a Chicago courtroom.

Ms. Khoshaba fled Iraq in 2001. While a refugee in Jordan, she married an Iraqi American Christian. The marriage gave her entry into the US. But a 2004 divorce left her in legal limbo. She missed the deadline for filing for asylum.

DeKelaita emerged from the courtroom and told Khoshaba she would be granted an exception. He had persuaded the judge and the government lawyer that she deserved a second chance because she was employed and law-abiding.

Khoshaba wiped her eyes and brought a small gold medallion of the Virgin Mary to her lips in gratitude.

Last November, Ibrahim’s case was more complex. A government lawyer said all Iraqis face possible harm, not just Christians. Christians, DeKelaita countered, are targeted because of their faith.

Ibrahim was granted asylum and released.

For DeKelaita, victory was bittersweet.

“I wish he could go back to his homeland,” he said, “and prosper.”