Iraqi-American Christians disappointed with Trump

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Iraqi-American Christians disappointed with Trump
Niraj Warikoo , Detroit Free Press
A daughter of an Iraqi immigrant detained recalls when ICE agents showed up at her home in Sterling Heights on June 11 to arrest him. Niraj
(Photo: Elaine Cromie, Detroit Free Press)

Standing in the living room of her brother’s home in Sterling Heights, Lina Denha wipes away tears with a tissue as she recalls how federal agents arrested him early one Sunday morning this month.

“To just come and grab him in front of his kids and family — that’s not right,” she said of the June 11 detention of Haydar Butris, 38, one of 114 Iraqi immigrants with criminal records arrested in Michigan.

“He’s been here most of his life. He did a mistake. He paid for it. Now, he is a good father, has kids, a family. He works, pays taxes and everything. And you just come knock on the door, come out of nowhere and grab him? That’s not right.”

Denha’s sadness turns to frustration as she expresses disappointment with President Donald Trump, whom she and some other Iraqi-American Christians in Michigan had supported. Denha’s sense of betrayal is echoed across metro Detroit among some Iraqi-American Christians who voted for Trump because they hoped he would be sympathetic to their community abroad, where they are a religious minority, and in the U.S.

“We voted for Trump,” Denha said. “That’s what we get from him? … Obama is better than him, 100 times.”

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Trump portrayed himself as a “savior” to Iraqi Christians, said Sterling Heights attorney Wisam Naoum. While on the campaign trail, Trump said that he would work to protect Christians in the Middle East and increase the number of Christian refugees admitted from countries such as Syria and Iraq.


During the campaign, some Iraqi-American Christian leaders met with Trump and his campaign officials, ultimately endorsing him and encouraging others to vote for him. “Chaldeans for Trump” signs appeared at Trump rallies in Michigan, referring to Iraqi Catholics.

Now some Iraqi Christians say that Trump has failed to keep his promises and is actually worse than former President Barack Obama, whose administration in 2010 stopped the deportation of Iraq immigrants with criminal records after considering complaints from Chaldean leaders.

In contrast this month, U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) is strongly defending its recent roundup of 199 Iraqi immigrants nationally (114 of them in metro Detroit) with criminal records. They said the Iraqis arrested were already facing final orders of removal from a judge and all but two were convicted of crimes, ranging from homicide and assault to less serious crimes like marijuana possession in the case of Butris.

ICE suggests more arrests may come as there are hundreds of other Iraqi nationals with final orders of deportation.

Trump “basically sold the community on the idea that he would protect their community in the homeland, that he would prioritize them, that he would be this savior of their people,” Naoum said.  “It hasn’t been even a few months and he’s betrayed them.”

At an Iraqi-American Christian rally Friday in Detroit, a man held a Christian cross and a sign that read “You Vowed To Protect Us,” with a photo of Trump above a tweet from the president in January that read “we can’t allow” Christians in the Middle East to be targeted. 

Many of the Iraqis arrested recently in Michigan are Christian and worry they would be targeted if deported to  Iraq, where they are a minority facing threats from extremist groups. Sending them to Iraq would be like a virtual death sentence and violates international treaties, advocates have said. Many legal actions have been filed, including one by the ACLU,  to try to stop the deportation process.

In addition to the arrests, Iraqi-American Christians say the Trump administration is ignoring the concerns of religious minorities in Iraq and is strongly supporting Saudi Arabia, which they say is responsible for groups like ISIS that target Christians.

More: Attorneys for Iraqi immigrants detained by ICE file emergency motions to stop deportation


Chaldeans, who are Iraqi Catholics, have been active in both the Democratic and Republican parties in Michigan.

It’s unclear what percentage of Iraqi-American Christians voted for President Trump since there are no presidential election polls specifically targeting that population, experts say.

According to 2015 U.S. Census figures, there are 46,441 Michiganders with Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac ancestry, three groups that are Iraqi-American Christian ethnicities. There are also an additional 31,863 people in Michigan who identify as having Iraqi ancestry, some of whom are Christian. Chaldean leaders say the Census undercounts their size in Michigan.Michigan also has a sizable Iraqi-American Muslim population, concentrated in Dearborn and Detroit.

In Macomb and Oakland counties, where the Iraqi Christian population is more likely to be concentrated, many Chaldeans were enthusiastic for Trump, said Joseph Kassab, founder and president of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute in West Bloomfield. Trump defeated Clinton in Macomb County by 53.6% to 42.1% while Clinton defeated Trump in Oakland County by 51.3% to 43.2%.


“We supported him big time,” said Kassab, who was part of the American-MidEast Coalition for Donald Trump. “First of all, we are conservative and conservatives are Republicans. And he said he will protect the Christians.”

Kassab said given the close election in Michigan, the votes of Middle Eastern Christians could have made a difference. Michigan has the highest percentage of Arab-Americans among states in the U.S., many of whom are Christian.

Kassab said that under the Obama administration,  the percentage of refugees who were Christian from Syria was only about 4% over the past two years. A report on the conservative media outlet said that more than 99% of refugees admitted into the U.S. from Syria from January through October last year were Muslim, citing statistics from the State Department  Obama officials said they would not admit refugees based on religion.

Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation, said: “I think the majority (of Chaldeans) likely supported the president” in the November election. “They were frustrated with the previous administration because of their” perceived weak “response to the persecution of Christians by ISIS. They were looking for someone who would stand up for the rights of minorities.”

Like other Chaldeans, Kassab is upset over the potential deportations of the Iraqis, but he doesn’t blame Trump.

“It’s not Trump who’s having to kick out the Christians,” Kassab said. “It’s ICE under orders to deport people who don’t have status. I don’t think he singled out Christians. He singled out everybody who doesn’t have the status.”

“But because this is a humanitarian situation, we don’t want people to be sent back to Iraq. I will not trust the Iraqi government to protect the people. The Iraqi government is not fair, it’s corrupted.”

In a statement last week, ICE said the arrests came about after a March 12 agreement with the government of Iraq. As part of the deal, Iraq said it would accept Iraqi nationals in the U.S. with criminal records who it had previously said it wouldn’t admit.

“As a result of recent negotiations between the U.S. and Iraq, Iraq has recently agreed to accept a number of Iraqi nationals subject to orders of removal,” said ICE in a statement. “Since the March 12, 2017, agreement with the government of Iraq regarding removals, eight Iraqi nationals have been removed to Iraq. ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.”

ICE said that no group of immigrants is immune from enforcement: “As (Department of Homeland Security) Secretary (John) Kelly has made clear, ICE will not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”

More: ICE defends arrests of 114 Iraqi immigrants in metro Detroit with criminal backgrounds

On Wednesday, six U.S. House Representatives from Michigan —  Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak; Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn; John Conyers, D-Detroit; Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield; Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, and John Moolenaar, R-Midland — wrote a letter to Kelly requesting a copy of the March agreement between the U.S. and Iraq. The letter said that the Iraqis facing deportation would be harmed in Iraq, especially those who are Christian.

“We accordingly request that you immediately send us a copy of the U.S. government’s agreement with Iraq so we in Congress can review its terms and request that you inform us as to what specific measures are provided to ensure these individuals’ safety and all other relevant information,” read part of the letter.

Contacted by the Free Press, spokesmen for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, and State Department declined comment. The White House did not respond to questions from the Free Press about the agreement and concerns expressed by Iraqi-American Christians in Michigan.

Chaldean leaders have said that some Republican congressmen in Michigan have been helpful in voicing concerns about the plight of Christians in Iraq. But on the recent arrests, the Republicans have not been as outspoken as the Democrats, said Chaldean leaders.

U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, who has previously issued statements on the plight of Iraqi Christians, did not sign the letter by the other U.S.  representatives.  Also, no Republican U.S. representative appeared at a rally Friday for the Iraqi detainees outside the federal McNamara building in Detroit attended by  Levin and Lawrence, who have been outspoken against the detentions, Manna said.

Trott and six other House Republicans did write a separate letter on Thursday to the national director of ICE, but it was not as critical of the arrests as the letter by the  other U.S. representatives.

“The people who voted for Donald Trump, they are very disappointed,” said Dr. Jacoub Mansour of West Bloomfield, a longtime leader in the Chaldean community. “They didn’t expect him to do that. I don’t think in future elections, they will vote for him.”

Mike Sarafa, a Chaldean advocate from Bloomfield Hills, said that some in the Chaldean community who backed Trump thought the administration would not target them for deportations.

“The community largely supported Trump and sometimes, you get what you asked for,” Sarafa said. “When somebody has kind of reactionary tendencies, they’re not bound by anything. So why people would have thought he would have targeted only Mexicans and Muslims, I’m not sure.”


Denha, the sister of Butris, one of the Iraqis detained, got some good news later in the week when ICE decided to allow him to stay in the U.S. until at least Aug. 10, when he will have a court hearing.

Butris and other Iraqi nationals are currently in custody at an immigration detention center in Youngstown, Ohio. ICE said they all have criminal backgrounds, including Butris, who pleaded guilty in 1999 to possessing several pounds of marijuana.

Denha is  worried he could be deported to Iraq, a country he hasn’t lived in since 1992, when he was a teenager. She said his three children, ages 3, 9, and 12, depend on him.


After his arrest, his 3-year-old son “was crying: ‘I want my dad, I want my dad'” Denha said. “He was crying so bad.”

If Butris is deported, he won’t be able to survive, she said. Butris has heart problems, is unfamiliar with Iraq, and will be a targeted minority there.

“What is he going to do?” she said. “It’s a war there, they are killing people. There are ISIS there. … I want my brother back.”

Photographer Elaine Cromie contributed to this report.

Contact Niraj Warikoo: or 313-223-4792. Follow him on Twitter @nwarikoo.