At a detention centre somewhere in Ohio, a man with no criminal record is locked behind bars, waiting to find out if he will be issued what he believes is a death sentence at the hands of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant drive.
Jony Jarjiss, a member of Michigan’s Chaldean Iraqi Christian community, has lived in the US for nearly 25 years. He has an American daughter and granddaughter, he works seven days a week in a supermarket and always pays his taxes.
Nevertheless, he is one of more than 1,400 Iraqis facing the possibility of deportation from the US as part of Trump’s crackdown on undocumented migrants. Jarjiss was among nearly 200 Iraqis detained in the Detroit area by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents in June, many of whom are part of the Chaldean Christian community who fear they will be persecuted or killed if deported to Iraq.
‘On death row’
“Jony has said that he would rather spend the rest of his life in jail than go back to Iraq,” says Jarjiss’s lawyer Randy Babi. “Right now in Iraq the Islamic State group is specifically targeting Christians; there are numerous examples of them extorting money from Christians or else killing them.”
“His family aren’t doing well at all. They’re fearing the worse. His brother told me sending him back to Iraq was the same as putting him on death row.”
It was not possible to speak to Jarjiss, currently being held in an Ohio detention centre, but Babi, who is working on the case pro bono along with his co-counsel Edward Bajoka, is a keen advocate for his client.
“We really just want to help him out,” he says. “He’s really a great guy.”
Jarjiss came to America in 1993, shortly after the first Gulf War, on a temporary K1 fiancée visa. Under the terms of the visa, he had 90 days to marry his partner to be allowed to stay in the country.
“For one reason or another, things didn’t work out between them and they didn’t get married,” explains Babi. “He then applied for asylum. He had deserted the Iraqi army before the Gulf War which was punishable by death under the rule of Saddam Hussein.”
His request for asylum was denied. But because Iraq had no formal diplomatic relations with Washington at the time and refused to issue paperwork to repatriate deportees, he remained in the US and began to build a life there.
“Once a year he had to check in with ICE. He never missed an appointment and they never suggested he was in any danger of being deported until now. He doesn’t even know anyone in Iraq anymore, he has trouble with the language. In his head he was here for life.” says Babi.
Victim of Trump’s travel ban
That illusion was shattered by Trump’s determination to forge ahead with his travel ban on nationals from six Muslim-majority nations.
Iraq had initially been on the president’s list of nations whose citizens the US was no longer prepared to accept, but was dropped from the revised version of the ban issued in March.
In exchange, Iraq agreed to begin accepting deportees from the US for the first time in decades. Shortly after, the ICE round-ups in Michigan and elsewhere began.
It was at one of his regular check-ins with ICE that Jarjiss’s American dream came crashing down.
“We had heard about the round-ups so when it was time for Jony’s appointment, we decided to go with him in case something happened,” says Babi.
“We were made to wait for six hours before we got to see anyone. Even the janitor came and left. When we finally saw the caseworker, he said he needed to speak to Jony in the back room. He led him through the door, we thought we were going with him but the case worker slammed the door shut. He nearly slammed it on my hand.”
After 15 minutes, Babi and Bajoka were told by the caseworker that Jarjiss had been detained. The caseworker refused to answer their questions. Later, they received a call to tell them Jarjiss was being held in a local jail and would be transported to a detention centre, where he has remained since.
Jarjiss has a history of strokes and kidney problems and the detention is taking a toll on his mental and physical health, according to Babi.
“He is not coping with it well at all,” he says. “He is scared for his life. He is distraught at the idea of leaving his family to fend for themselves without him.”
‘Threat to national security’
Unlike most of those recently detained by ICE, Jarjiss has no criminal record whatsoever, according to his lawyers.
ICE has previously used the supposed criminal backgrounds of those it has detained to justify the round-ups of Iraqis, publicly stating that the “overwhelming majority” have “criminal convictions for crimes including homicide, rape, aggravated assault, kidnapping, burglary, drug trafficking, robbery, sex assault, weapons violations and other offenses”.
An ICE spokesperson in Michigan told FRANCE 24 that, despite that statement, those without a criminal record were not necessarily exempt.
“ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security,” the spokesperson said. “However … ICE will not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
Peter Zora, himself a member of the Chaldean community in Michigan and a community organiser with CODE Legal Aid, which has been helping Jarjiss and others fight deportation, is not convinced ICE’s motivations were ever about “national security”.
“What appears to be happening is that they are targeting the most vulnerable individuals, like Jony,” he said.
“Of those who do have criminal records among the detainees, few do so for serious or violent crimes”, he added.
Meanwhile, he accuses ICE of waging what he describes as “mental warfare” on the detainees and their families.
“ICE Agents told one daughter not to worry because they would be sending her father to ‘a 5-star hotel called Abu Ghraib’. Abu Ghraib is the prison in Iraq where US Army and CIA personnel tortured Iraqis,” he said.
Agents have also put people on planes telling them that they were being flown to Iraq, only to land in Louisiana or Arizona, Zora claims, citing numerous first-hand accounts he has been given by the families of detainees.
Asked to comment on these accusations, ICE told FRANCE 24 that: “All enforcement activities are conducted with the same level of professionalism and respect that ICE officers exhibit every day. Any allegations to the contrary are patently false.”
Babi has also heard the stories, though only second hand. “I don’t know if anyone would make something like that up. I think it’s pretty disgusting myself,” he says.
But true or not, the detentions are enough in themselves to put the whole Chaldean community in Michigan on edge.
“There’s fear out there, a lot of uncertainty,” Zora says.
‘Caught in the crossfire’
As to why the Chaldean community in particular appears to have been targeted, Zora believes it is purely political.
“It’s a response to the travel ban being called a ‘Muslim ban’,” he says. “They needed an example to say ‘this is not just a Muslim ban, we’re targeting people of all religions’. People like Jony have been caught in the crossfire.”
For now, Jony and other Iraqis facing deportation from the US have been given a stay of execution. Last week, US district judge Mark Goldsmith ruled that they must be given time to appeal their deportation cases in court.
“Each petitioner faces the risk of torture or death on the basis of residence in America and publicised criminal records,” Goldsmith wrote in his verdict. “Many will also face persecution as a result of a particular religious affiliation.”
Jarjiss hopes that after his day in court he will be allowed to remain in the country he has called home for the past 25 years. If not, it will be not just an indictment of the legal system, but American society as a whole, says Zora.
“What kind of society are we becoming if we send people off to potentially their deaths, just for not having a valid visa?” he says.