In winter, the four-hour drive from Detroit to Youngstown is particularly bleak. One February 2018 day I couldn’t discern any contrast between the snow on the farm fields, the faded white of gambrel-roofed barns, and the dove-gray sky behind them. The landscape alternates between fast food and agriculture, the flat road stretching on and on. Drive the length of Ohio and you’ll pay more than $15 in tolls.
For more than a year at that time, dozens of Detroit families made this drive often to see detained fathers, husbands, brothers, and uncles, all held by ICE at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center. I joined them, and on one of my visits, I was scheduled to meet two men for back-to-back interviews. Instead, prison staff decided we could all talk together.
So Peter Abbo—a name I’m using for this story to protect his anonymity—pushed another man’s wheelchair into a tiny metal room, the two of them sharing a single phone on their side of the plexiglass. Peter was bald and pale, a red-orange beard on his chin but no mustache above it. The man in the wheelchair fit a more expected version of “Middle Eastern,” with olive skin and graying black hair. They looked nothing alike but had established a brotherly rhythm, telling each other’s stories, passing the plastic phone between them. Neither man’s family had visited yet. Peter’s wife had breast cancer, I learned, and the other man had a first grade son.
The man in the wheelchair dominated the phone but if Peter was annoyed, he didn’t betray it. When I indicated that Peter should speak he did so with equal urgency, but also with a self-effacing demeanor. Repeatedly he said, “I take responsibility” or “I did it. I own that,” in explaining his crimes and circumstances.
Peter pressed a family photo and a Xerox of a handwritten letter against the plexiglass for me to read. The judge at his recent hearing had ignored the letter, and Peter wanted me to see the injustice of it, to understand his situation.
These were two of more than 300 Iraqi-born Detroit-area men arrested in a surprise ICE raid back on Sunday morning, June 11, 2017. They both have criminal records, for which they’ve served time. In 2010, the man in the wheelchair worked in a liquor store that sold fake Nike shoes. He was charged with a counterfeiting felony and went to prison. Seven years later, shoeless and in his underwear at six in the morning, he was handcuffed and taken out of his home and into one of the SWAT vehicles idling on his suburban street. More quietly, in the weeks before and after, others were arrested in Michigan and beyond. At the time there were just over 1,300 men in the U.S. who fell into a narrow category of immigration law—Iraqi-born people who had “final orders of deportation.” A few had been convicted of serious crimes. Many more were guilty of non-violent offenses or even simple lapses in paperwork. In the summer of 2017, the Trump administration planned to deport them all.
This was a hard turn in policy. For decades, the U.S. did not deport Iraqis. The situation in that nation was deemed so dangerous that even the George W. Bush administration had understood it to be inhumane to deport Iraqis to Iraq. People who had been “Americanized” by spending time in the U.S. would be in extreme danger there, and their presence was considered a risk to Iraq’s precarious security situation. Citing logistical and humanitarian reasons, the Iraqi government refused to repatriate them anyway.
Under current immigration law, felons generally cannot remain in the U.S. But when an Iraqi-born person was convicted of a felony, he or she would be sentenced according to the courts and then, instead of being deported, as other foreign-born felons might be, they were assigned supervision from ICE—usually monthly or annual check-ins. Officially their status included the designation “under final orders of deportation,” even though the deportation aspect hadn’t happened in a generation. Sending someone back to Iraq was all but unimaginable.
Until it wasn’t.
By mid-afternoon on June 11, 2017, the Detroit ICE office was filled with recently-arrested men. Detroit-area Iraqi families were urgently trying to reach one another and warn them about the surprise raid. Peter Abbo was out on an errand when his wife Mimi answered their door. She called him. According to a letter she sent immigration count, he “…turned himself in within ten minutes of getting my phone call. [He] would never run away from his situation and never has.” Peter and Mimi were both aware of the other Detroit arrests that day. “I knew what was happening. I could have run,” he said. “I faced up to it.”
He came home and ICE agents waiting there arrested him.
It seemed reasonable to Peter Abbo that his situation could be sorted out. He did not have a violent past. He was involved in a weird and spontaneous armed robbery in 1990 and a cocaine deal in 2009, but had served time years ago for both. He had scrupulously kept up with ICE check-in appointments, even as the appointments had become more tense and punitive since Donald Trump had taken office six months before.
The day after the 2016 election that brought Trump the presidency, Peter remembers, he had a scheduled meeting with his immigration officer. He was in the waiting room with several other people when his officer called out across the room: “Hey Peter, did you hear Trump won? All you guys are going to get deported now.”
Peter chose not to answer. He looked down and shook his head.
With a thick Michigan accent, elongating the first “a” in “Arabs,” the officer said, “All you A-rabs. Wait and see.”
More than half of the Iraqis arrested and threatened with deportation in 2017 are neither Arab nor Muslim. Peter is Chaldean, a sect of Catholicism. He grew up speaking Aramaic, not Arabic. A minority group in Iraq, the Chaldean community has endured an epic list of injustices through history, from its formation in the Mesopotamian era to the present. Ostracized and in danger in Iraq, Chaldeans are the primary subset of all Iraqi immigrants to the U.S. The first influx began around 1914 when Henry Ford offered appealing wages of $5 a day for autoworkers. As generations of suffering followed for Chaldeans in Iraq, they continued to slowly immigrate to the Detroit area. At least 250,000 Iraqis are known to have died at the hand of their own government during Saddam Hussein’s brutal twenty-four-year reign. And Chaldeans’ suffering didn’t end with Saddam’s death in 2006. Thirteen years later, in 2019, the Chaldean archbishop announced that Iraqi Christians faced “extinction” unless there was a change in the political situation.
Peter and his twin brother were born in 1969 in Baghdad. The Abbos had come from a village in northernmost Iraq, near the borders of Iran and Turkey. Red-headed, fair-skinned people—like Peter and his twin—are common there, and Chaldean culture is dominant. Peter tells me that during World War I his family and his village helped the Russians and, as a result, “The rest of Iraq has always treated us as traitors.” His parents were forced to move south when the violence against Christians became intolerable. “Kidnapping and killing Christians happened so much,” he said.
His parents thought they’d be safer in the city, but living there was substantially worse. In the north, the Abbos had been almost exclusively among Chaldeans, but in Baghdad they were a minority. The family spoke Aramaic at home. Everyone around them spoke Arabic, and most were Muslim. Peter couldn’t get his footing in school because of the language difference. His sister was harassed because she didn’t wear a hijab. The children were bullied, and Peter has a bright white scar on his forehead from an injury sustained during that time. He touches it when he talks about those years in Baghdad. “They jumped me,” he says quietly. “They threw rocks.”
In 1980 the Iran-Iraq War began. The same year, doctors told Peter’s father that he needed a pacemaker. Fortunately for the family, his father became eligible for a visa to have surgery in the U.S. It would also allow his wife and children a respite from the day to day brutality they were facing.
Peter and his twin brother were both given traditional Chaldean names when they were born, but when they moved to America, they took their baptismal names. They learned English. Their father recovered, then began working as a cook for a suburban Detroit banquet hall. Peter’s older sister married and had children. Four years passed. The Abbos overstayed their visitor visa, and, in 1984, left the country in order to re-enter later using proper immigration channels.
Returning to Iraq in the interim was not possible. Peter’s oldest brother–the only immediate family member to have stayed behind–was by 1984 in his fourth year as a soldier in the Iran-Iraq War. It became known in his army unit that his family had moved to the U.S.—an unforgivable stain on his name. Anyone traveling to America, and especially coming back to Iraq after living in America, was assumed to be involved in espionage. His brother learned of a secret and credible plan for his fellow soldiers to torture and kill him; he absconded instead, running into the mountainous wilderness near their home village and surviving on little until he arrived in an Iranian refugee camp.
To avoid endangering other family members or risk torture and death themselves, Peter and his family moved to Casablanca in 1984, living off of their small savings. His now-naturalized adult sister sponsored their re-entry to the U.S. in 1986, when Peter was seventeen.
The Abbos moved to Detroit’s Chaldean Town, near 7 Mile and Woodward Avenue, a neighborhood of densely packed single-family houses without driveways—built before cars—and a small strip of Iraqi bakeries and meat markets. Of the roughly 640,000 Chaldeans worldwide, about 120,000 reside in Metro Detroit. Saddam’s rule had prompted thousands of Chaldean families to flee persecution in Iraq beginning in the late 1970s. Many went to Detroit, and a large number of them settled into jobs operating corner convenience stores as family businesses, as they had done in Iraq. Living in a contemporary food desert, many Detroit residents rely on corner stores for nutrition. The Chaldean Chamber of Commerce says that nine out of ten food stores in the city are owned by Chaldeans. Muslims are forbidden to buy and sell alcohol, creating a business niche for Chaldeans both in Iraq and in the U.S. Chaldeans and their late-night liquor stores, called party stores here, are stalwarts of Detroit culture. Like bodegas in New York, party stores in Detroit are handy for beer or milk or toiletries, and a reliable source of friendly conversation. I spent an afternoon in a West Side Detroit party store in 2019 and its Chaldean owner, who himself spent ten months detained in 2017-18, greeted everyone who entered by name, usually referencing their family. “Terry, we got diapers in for your sister’s baby,” he told one visitor.
In the mid-80s, when Peter was a teenager, Pershing High School, on Detroit’s West Side, proved even less welcoming than Baghdad had been. Detroit is a majority Black city. Most other Middle Eastern kids—who were generally Muslim and had immigrated to Dearborn, adjacent to Detroit—had olive skin and dark hair. Peter was freckled and pale, ginger-haired. Peter said he tried at school, and tried not to get distracted by various criminal activities in his neighborhood. “But my head wasn’t in place.”
He was working after school and at night, at a liquor store on 6 Mile and Telegraph. That neighborhood was also a hub for drugs. “I used to look at the dope dealers and think, well, what a life. I mean that’s what you saw,” he said. “Starting in mid-’80s, mid-’90s, there was nothing but cocaine, hard drugs, fighting, robbing, killing.”
On Mother’s Day 1990, when Peter had just turned twenty-one, he was hanging out with several high school friends near a party store. One of them, he says, spontaneously decided to rob someone coming out. The man was holding a bouquet of flowers, presumably for a mother in his life. As he opened the door of his car, a red Corvette, Peter’s friend pulled a gun on the man, took his keys, and got in the car, yelling at Peter to hop in. This had not been Peter’s idea. He says he felt almost as confused as the Corvette owner. But Peter opened the passenger door, grabbed the flowers from the front seat, handed them to the man who’d bought them, and got in the back seat.
“Stupid, stupid,” Peter says, recalling the incident. “Me and another guy jumped in the car and took off.” They drove the Corvette for ten minutes around Chaldean Town. The police asked the victim who stole the car, and the owner reported that one of them was a redhead. “Everyone else with me was African-American. So the police knew exactly who it was,” Peter said. “I am the only red-haired guy in that neighborhood. When they came to me, they asked me whether I was the guy with a gun. I said I was. I couldn’t snitch. In that neighborhood, in that time, you can’t do that. They would have burned my house.”
Peter says he never held the gun. He was holding the bouquet during most of the frenzied interaction. The victim agreed, and told law enforcement so at a hearing—that Peter was an accessory and bystander, but not the gunman. “He said that I had nothing to do with it,” Peter said, that he had been “nice enough to give him his flowers back because it was Mother’s Day.”
Peter was offered a plea bargain for a lower charge, unarmed robbery, but when he got the paperwork it was for the original charge, armed robbery. But Peter still agreed to protect his friends, and to protect himself from retribution. “I was young and stupid,” Peter said.
He served one year and three months in a state prison. He’d understood that the plea meant his record would be clean, but he was wrong—those ten minutes in 1990 are indelibly marked on his record as “armed robbery.” His family paid $1,000 for the lawyer who urged him to take the plea deal. It’s unclear whether this lawyer considered the consequences of adding a felony to an immigrant’s record, or if he did understand but assumed that it was irrelevant, since Iraqis were never deported anyway.
Peter spent his twenties back in the same Detroit neighborhood. His girlfriend got pregnant and then left, shortly after their son was born. Peter and his mother raised the boy together. There was never enough money. “It’s so stupid to even say it now,” he tells me. “but I wanted to be a drug dealer. They had money, friends. They were the only ones who didn’t have to worry. I should have wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t know to want that.”
In 2009, at age thirty-nine, he was arrested for selling cocaine. He hired a friend of a friend’s lawyer, who was Yemeni.
But at the time neither Peter nor his attorney knew that something important had changed in the nineteen years since his 1990 felony for armed robbery. “Janet Reno changed the law back in ’98,” he says. “If you’re not a citizen and catch a felony, you are deportable.” He felt a rush of fear as this fact emerged during the prosecution’s remarks at the hearing. Serving more time in a U.S. prison was a very unpleasant prospect but was nothing compared to being deported to Iraq as a fair-skinned Chaldean who’d spent decades steeped in U.S. culture. He didn’t know Arabic, and he didn’t know anyone in Iraq. Deportation was effectively a death sentence. Even if actually being deported was unheard of, he didn’t want to be put on that list.
During the court recess, Peter sat at the wooden defendant’s table next to his Yemini attorney, who raised his eyebrows and leaned toward Peter’s ear.
Get out, he said.
“He looked at me. He told me, They’re going to lock you up. Send you back. I remember that day. Wow. How he looked at me. He said Run. And with my, with my dumbness, I believed him. I hate to admit it. It’s nuts. I got up and left. My lawyer said to run, and my dumb ass ran.”
When the court recessed, Peter just walked out and went home. Not for long, though. “It took them a month or two to come get me. ICE came, and I was in for three months, but then the policy with Iraq was that they wouldn’t deport me.” That would change.
Immigration and Naturalization Services arrested Peter in 2009, and he served three months in the Calhoun County Jail in Battle Creek. His trial for the drug charge proceeded–this time with a public defender after he parted ways with the Yemini attorney. In January of 2011, he was sentenced to thirty-two months in prison and four years of probation. He served about thirty months in state prison. After his release, he reported to ICE every six months. Like all Iraqi immigrants with final orders of deportation, he was assigned an immigration officer whose job was to check up with an individuals’ employment and housing situations and monitor them to be sure they were accountable, with no criminal activity. They could be hard. “The ICE people, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Peter says. “A few are okay, normal. Most of them, it seems like they’re there because they want to show you their power, to disrespect you. They call you liar, call you piece of shit, Arab.”
Peter worked for a disaster cleanup company at the time, entering homes and businesses after destructive events such as fires and floods, and even crimes. “We would go to burnt, damaged properties, water-damaged properties, and we’d tear them down and rebuild them,” he says.
His boss would put him on the phone or in front of customers whenever possible because, he says, he was the friendliest, most outgoing man on the crew. His boss wrote a letter in support of his release in 2018, telling the immigration court that Peter is “ hardworking, trustworthy, a team player, and a huge asset to our organization. He has always been reliable…we continually receive positive comments about his work ethic and personality from many of our clients.”
Because of his light skin and red hair. Peter says, co-workers often took it for granted he was white. A surprising number of them, he says, were allied with white supremacy groups and assumed that he’d be sympathetic. He wasn’t. “They thought I was thinking the same way, so they’d say things about the Hispanic people, about Jewish people. They hate Jewish people more than anything.”
“They’re all thinking it’s going to be a race war,” Peter said. He makes an upside-down “okay” hand gesture, now associated with white supremacists, and says, “This is how they identify each other, how they say white power. They’re signaling.” They sometimes signaled him that way, Peter said, because of his looks. “I’m thinking, Honest to God, this is everywhere. This is ugly.”
Peter has been married to Mimi since 1999. (For her privacy and Peter’s, Mimi is not her real name.) She’s also from a Chaldean family, though she was born in Detroit, and she is kind and beautiful, with long hair and a wide open smile. The couple tried for a baby and she miscarried several times. Years passed. They adopted dogs. Mimi worked in a hair salon and started a cookie business. In 2015, a daughter was born, prematurely, and lived only eight days, leaving behind a sadness that still reverberates.
In 2016, when Donald Trump was running for president, they noticed their Chaldean community rallying behind him. “I am my aunt’s favorite nephew,” Peter says with a smile. “She’s very religious, and she started telling me about Trump. The lobbyists had started influencing the Chaldean churches, and they told their members, You have to vote Trump. He’s helping us.” Peter disagreed with his aunt and told her Trump was a con artist. “I’ve never ever seen her so mad at me.”
In July 2016, at the Republican National Convention, Trump accepted the party’s nomination and delivered a particularly xenophobic speech. At one point he said something that directly addressed Peter’s situation: “Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.” Trump promised deportations, construction of the Southern U.S. border wall, and tightened immigration restrictions.
Like the Michigan Chaldean community, Peter’s co-workers
The rhetoric that had particularly resonated with Peter’s aunt and her church was Trump’s promise, again and again, to help persecuted Middle Eastern Christians. It paid off for him. Traditionally Democratic, Michigan favored Trump by 10,000 votes, the smallest margin of any state, but enough to have him carry all of its electoral votes. A key part of that support came from Macomb County, a Chaldean stronghold. Mostly white and blue-collar, the county is a political bellwether. It swung right in 2016. (In 2020, Joe Biden handily defeated Trump by 154,000 votes in the state of Michigan–a margin fifteen-times higher than the previous election. But Macomb County remained solidly red.)
On election night 2016, Peter went to sleep when the tallying was still underway. At 2 a.m. Mimi woke him, crying, saying Trump had won.
“I’m fucked,” he said.
In January 2017, the Trump administration announced its so-called Muslim ban, which was challenged by the ACLU and was revised and reissued a few times before being finalized in March 2017. Iraq was on the initial list and then was dropped from the final declaration, after confidential negotiations that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called an example of “close cooperation” between the two governments. In return for being dropped from the travel ban, Iraq’s government agreed to repatriate Iraqis that the United States wanted to deport. Suddenly, the decades-old mutual understanding about Iraqi deportation was over.
Then, weeks after the travel ban went into effect, the U.S. government launched a coordinated effort to arrest and deport any Iraqis with final orders of deportation. Before dawn on June 11, 2017, ICE vans were joined by state police from Michigan and Ohio, SWAT teams, and what appeared to be the fullest possible complement of law enforcement personnel and vehicles, for a completely unanticipated storm into hundreds of Detroit-area homes.
By early afternoon, people began protesting at the Detroit ICE office. Family members, activists, and lawyers tried to understand what the sudden change in policy meant. There was a rumor that the government planned to immediately deport all three hundred of the people arrested that day, which seemed a logistical impossibility. No one had ID with them, and certainly no one had Iraqi paperwork or passports. On a human level, it was confounding to think that these hundreds of men with Michigan accents and habits could ever slip into Iraq unnoticed. Tattoos, verboten in Iraq and common among Detroiters, were an instant giveaway, and would put almost all of these men in immediate danger. Muslim men may have fared slightly better than Chaldeans but they would still face the suspicion that they were involved in spying for the U.S. There was no assurance that the Iraqi government would shield deportees from violence once they were repatriated. No one arrested that day had much chance of surviving in Iraq.
The ACLU of Michigan quickly went to work. In days, the organization built a class-action lawsuit centered on Sam Hamama, a Bloomfield Hills, Michigan grocer who had lived in the U.S. since his family fled Iraq in the late ’70s. In the early ’80s, while driving late at night in Detroit, Hamama got into a dispute with another driver and, to intimidate him, showed his gun—unloaded but also unlicensed—out the window. He had been charged with three felonies.
Many of the men arrested in 2017, in fact, were party store workers or owners who had felonies related to unregistered firearms. Any transaction at a party store in Detroit takes place on either side of bulletproof plexiglass, and guns are endemic in Detroit’s culture. Cash flowed through the party store ecosystem, making the stores targets for robberies. Working in a party store in the 80s and 90s without a gun would have been naïve.
The attorneys on the case
Most of the Iraqis who had been detained sought lawyers to help with their individual cases, which included minor drug offenses, decades-old nonviolent infractions, immigration matters, and a few violent crimes. Their thinking was that if they could resolve the pending issues on their records, they could be removed from the final deportation list. In more than a few cases, languishing paperwork was the real issue.
Immigration lawyers and criminal lawyers were hired, as hundreds of Iraqi-born men were sent to county jails and private prisons from Battle Creek to Youngstown to Port Huron to Sault Ste. Marie. Few were near their families in metro Detroit. Sometimes, inmates were shifted between facilities without notice.
After he was detained in June 2017, Peter hired Ed Bajoka, a Chaldean criminal and immigration lawyer who took on dozens of clients that summer. Peter and Bajoka worked together on a strategy to address Peter’s unresolved criminal record and set him free.
Then came bad news: In August, while Peter was in Youngstown, Mimi learned she had breast cancer. He couldn’t be with her. Visiting him would be costly in gas and tolls, and in any case, she wasn’t feeling well enough for such a long drive. Their nineteenth wedding anniversary approached. They’d spent eight months apart.
Finally, they heard news in the ACLU case: Given the long-term detention of so many still sorting out their legal situations, the ACLU argued that at six months, incarceration met the threshold for “indefinite,” and that indefinite detention is not legal. The law allows the government to detain someone when there is a timeline for their day in court or for their deportation, but it’s not permissible to keep people on hold indefinitely. Judge Goldsmith’s second crucial order in this case arrived on the second day of 2018, and Homeland Security had forty-five days to offer all the detained a hearing for immediate release. The few people who’d been arrested with active pending criminal cases, or with recent violent crimes, were likely to remain locked up longer. Those deemed an imminent danger to society would be held, but from a legal perspective that applied to only a small number of the Iraqis arrested in June. Most everyone would be out in mid-February, to fight their individual cases from home. This meant that Peter would soon see Mimi, so long as his hearing was successful.
Peter’s day in court came via video conference. Instead of being transported seventy-eight miles to Cleveland Immigration Court, Peter saw Judge Christopher R. Seppanen, appointed in August 2017 by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, via video. Video was already on the rise in the U.S. court system in the 2010s, as it saves money on such things as prisoner transportation and staff time, but it diminishes the humanity of the process. There is no eye contact. No sense of how a person might walk through the room with deference to the judge, no chance to whisper with their attorney for quick assurance or change of plan or to better understand a legal maneuver.
For this group, the hearings occurred mostly in either Detroit or Cleveland’s immigration court systems and were heard by several different judges. The results varied widely. Sympathetic judges allowed people out on minimal or no bond; others pushed for high bonds.
Bajoka and Peter had pulled together an impressive dossier for their hearing, including letters from Mimi, evidence about his past cases, and the glowing letter from his boss at the restoration company. The file was two inches thick. It felt like a physical embodiment of Peter’s bid for freedom.
When the video feed clicked on to Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, a camera had been centered on Peter’s face, so he was visible to the judge and spectators. The camera in Cleveland, in turn, meant to give Peter a view of the courtroom and the judge, was not positioned to allow Peter to see the people in the courtroom. For the duration of his hearing the camera was turned down and focused on Judge Seppanen’s desk. Peter could see the sheaf of papers he’d worked so hard on with Bajoka, and he could see Seppanen’s hands gesturing as he spoke. He never saw the judge’s face.
But he could see this: The judge never opened the thick file with evidence about his virtues, and the hearing concluded with a ruling that Peter was denied the chance for bond at any price. No reason was provided.
“I’m not a jihadist,” Peter said afterward, dumbfounded. “I’m not MS-13. Why can’t he see who I am?”
Peter remained in Youngstown for four more months before being moved to a Michigan county jail in Port Huron. Through 2018, he and Bajoka soldiered on with the case. The ACLU of Michigan pursued their own class action case, making incremental wins and experiencing little losses along the way.
In early 2018, I tried to contact Peter after he was moved out of Youngstown but he was under more restrictive communication measures at the St. Clair County Jail, where they charged inmates an exorbitant fee to make calls. Meanwhile, Mimi’s expensive treatment had them in a financial emergency. And the visiting system was difficult to navigate, too, even for someone like me with more resources than the typical family. I couldn’t manage to see him, but I was sure he was there. A detainee I interviewed there confirmed it. “The redhead, right?”
The good news for the detainees: by the summer of 2018, very few people arrested two years earlier had actually gone back to Iraq. I heard about only two individuals who opted to return voluntarily, rather than await their fate in a detention center. After allegations that ICE officers at Steward, Georgia detention center were coercing inmates into stating in writing their desire to return to Iraq, the ACLU of Michigan filed a motion that appeared to stop such interference.
Most of those detained in June 2017 had eventually been successful in reopening their old criminal and immigration cases, which were being resolved in their favor. The ACLU might not have won an overwhelming absolution for everyone, but they did put the brakes on the Iraqi deportation process. Even Peter was finally released, with Bajoka’s help..
In a video Mimi took that December 2018 day, Peter walks out of the St. Clair County Jail with two plastic garbage bags of his belongings. Behind the camera, Mimi is ebullient. Peter drops the bags mid stride and puts his right hand on his heart, beaming, walking directly toward the camera.
Peter reached me on Facebook in early 2019 and let me know he was home, with Mimi.
He’d gone back to work at the restoration company. ICE had issued him an electronic tether as a condition of his release. It was worn on his ankle and he didn’t feel it was a great impediment physically, though it was a constant reminder of the in-between place where he found himself. Mimi was in cancer recovery, and Peter’s son was a dad, too. Peter, fifty now, was a grandfather.
But quietly, over the summer of 2019, Iraqis began to be deported.
If 2017’s fears had been of a shock and awe-style mass deportation, 2019’s fears were about something more calculated, like a cat burglar heist. ICE seemed to individually select people for deportation who had little or spotty legal representation or whose cases were complicated to argue. One of these was a man named Jimmy Aldaoud.
Jimmy was forty-one when he was deported. Records are unclear about whether he had come to Detroit as an infant—as the U.S. government claims—or whether he was born in a Michigan hospital in 1978, as Jimmy told me. He has also said to other Iraqi inmates that he was born in Greece, in a refugee camp. In any event, his parents, and any record of his birth, are gone. Most of his life, Jimmy suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, as well as diabetes, and was homeless. When I spoke to him by phone in 2018, was strident about some parts of his criminal case, confused about others. His criminal case was for a nonviolent suburban Detroit garage break-in. As far as I could tell, his primary struggle was his mental health.
ICE picked him up in June 2019, and days later Jimmy landed in the Najaf airport, in central Iraq—no money, no passport, no Arabic language skills, no family in Iraq. He didn’t have food or access to it. He didn’t have any of the medications he took for his mental and physical conditions. Najaf, 100 miles from Baghdad, is one of two most holy cities for Shiite Muslims and is home to thousands of pilgrims at any given time. Objectively, it’s one of the least safe places for Christians on the planet. Jimmy was Chaldean and had a cross tattooed on his forearm.
Jimmy lived on the streets of Baghdad in the summer, and someone there posted a video of him on Facebook looking desperate and hungry. “I’m here now,” he says in the video. “I don’t understand the language. I’ve been sleeping in the street. I’m diabetic. I take insulin shots. … I’ve been throwing up, throwing up, sleeping in the streets, trying to find something to eat. I got nothing over here, as you can see. I was kicked in the back a couple days ago. I was sleeping on the ground. He claimed it’s his property. I begged him. I said, please sir, I’ve never seen this country.” About seven weeks after he was deported, Jimmy was dead. Bajoka posted about the death on Facebook on August 7, 2019, including this final line: “Rest In Peace Jimmy. Your blood is on the hands of ICE and this administration.” After working to return Jimmy’s remains to Michigan’s ninth district, Rep. Andy Levin attributed the death to a “diabetic crisis.”
The Chaldean Community Foundation held a vigil and press conference for Jimmy in mid-August 2019. Attorneys present encouraged anyone in the room eligible for deportation to keep an international SIM card with them at all times so that if they were deported, they could insert the card into an Iraqi cell phone and try to get a message back to the U.S. I bumped into Peter at the vigil. I was in a folding chair up front, and he stood with his arms crossed over his chest in the rear. He wore all white athletic clothes and shoes. He looked antsy, ready to move at a moment’s notice. I asked if he was okay.
“Canada, I’m thinking,” is all he said. His tone was friendly, but he walked away quickly.
Peter went dark on Facebook, and by that time, early fall 2019, his lawyer, Bajoka, hadn’t heard a word from him. More Iraqis had been deported. I assumed Peter had been, too.
The young adults of Detroit have long known Windsor, Ontario, as a special destination. The legal drinking age in the province, a few minutes from Detroit, is nineteen. It’s a short trip, and an easy one. Up until just before Covid-19 restrictions began, crossing the border cost $5 each way and could take as little as ten minutes, including a visit with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
In the fall of 2019 Peter had continued to make his ICE visits, upped to once a week instead of twice a year. They were not pleasant. “Certain immigration officers had issues with certain people, so they would pick on them a lot,” Peter said. “There’s me and a couple other guys they had reporting every week. Literally insulting us, belittling us, pushing us into where we can blow up and say something wrong so they can have reason to detain us.”
“You know, I’ve watched these movies from the 30s and the 40s about how the Germans would treat people, the Jewish community and the minorities,” he said. “It’s almost there. It’s almost… there was certain ones who are almost there, honest to God.”
In February 2020, two years after I first met him, Peter and I agreed to meet at a branch of the Windsor, Ontario public library. I drove across the Ambassador Bridge. It was freezing and gray outside, and I found Peter in a big parka, sitting in the library’s reading room. He was placid and hopeful, different than I had ever seen him. He was living in Canada.
Peter had met at 7 a.m. on November 6, 2019 with the Canadian immigration office.
“I was talking to this attorney over here for three months before I made this move,” he said. He hadn’t warned Bajoka, his Detroit lawyer. “I didn’t want him to be involved in whatever. Because I knew that my immigration officer was going to find a way to punish him, too.”
He felt certain he could be deported to Iraq if he stayed in the U.S., even under a Democratic successor to Trump. And he was certain he wouldn’t survive deportation. Peter is one of many people who told me their greatest fear about returning is that they’d be beheaded, a common form of religiously-motivated violence.
Sitting across a wooden library table from me in 2020, he told me how he had dealt with his security ankle bracelet, “I waited until the battery was dead. It had a three-hour battery life. So I didn’t charge it, and I waited until midnight, and at five o’clock I made the decision to go.,” he said. “ I stayed up all night, then I cut it. It’s like hard plastic rubber. I cut it with a scissors. I threw it out, and I just went straight to the border.”
Just before cutting the bracelet he had made one final stop— his old neighborhood, Chaldean Town. “And I cut it right in front of the house where we lived, where I grew up. I was over there in the Seven Mile area, like Woodward area. That’s where I grew up, and I knew that I’m never going to see that area again. I just wanted to see it one last time. Then I went straight to the bridge, with my wife in my car.” he said. He told Border Patrol he had an appointment with Canadian Immigration. The trip, like all Detroit-Windsor crossings, was easy.
The next day, Peter’s immigration officer called him. Peter told the man he was out of the country. “He basically cussed me out and told me, Good riddance, and he hopes everybody like me is gonna be back either locked up or in Iraq.”
The same officer called Bajoka that day, too, accusing him of encouraging Peter to cut his tether and flee. “Of course I did no such thing,” Bajoka told me.
By the time I met with him in February 2020 in Windsor, Peter was working his way, successfully, through the Canadian immigration system. He’d picked up a driving job that supported him and helped him pay the mortgage on his house in Michigan. Mimi’s final reconstructive surgery in her cancer treatment was scheduled for March. The plan was for her to finish her treatment, then sell the house. She would move to Canada when the loose ends of their lives in Detroit were tied. In the meantime, the trip to visit him was short and easy. She’d go once a week.
Peter and I sat at the library for a few hours, catching up. I was audio recording our conversation but we were near a restroom and every time someone used the thunderous hand dryer our words were swallowed up. People interrupted us several times, usually to ask him for directions. I told him he apparently looked Canadian now, just before a blind man using a white cane approached and asked Peter if he would mind helping him to the men’s room. He leapt up to assist, almost tipping the library chair backward as he did.
When they returned, we walked outside for a bit in the light sleet and monotone gray of February. We thought the next month, March of 2020, would bring better weather and we could chat outside. He expected to have furthered his job search and his Canadian immigration process by then, too.
I haven’t seen him since.
On March 18, 2020 Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced their mutual decision to close the land border between their nations, an unprecedented agreement that affected the 5,500 miles shared between the U.S. and Canada. Essential healthcare workers, students and commercial drivers were exempt. Spousal visits were not. Meanwhile, due to Covid-19, Mimi’s surgery in Detroit was postponed.
There was nothing Mimi or Peter could do to reunite. Even if Mimi were able to make it to Canada, she would be walking away from her health treatments, as well as their mortgage and home. Peter will never be able to return. On Valentine’s Day 2021, when they had been separated just short of one year, he posted a picture of them together on social media, “I appreciate and love you for all you did and give day after day…This is the last picture we took before the border was closed.” They were separated indefinitely, by eleven miles. In August 2021, Canada opened its borders to fully vaccinated travelers, and the U.S. reciprocated in November of the same year.
Had he stayed in Detroit, Peter would still be vulnerable, even under the Joe Biden administration. Though deportations of Iraquis seem to be near zero under the current president, there’s been no policy change regarding Iraqi deportation in the years since the June 11, 2017 arrests under Trump’s Homeland Security Department. Legislation aimed to correct the situation has sputtered. Co-sponsored by U.S. Representative Andy Levin and John Moolenaar in 2019, The Deferred Removal for Iraqi Nationals Including Minorities Act aims to provide a twenty-four-month respite from deportation to Iraqis still navigating their cases. But the bill hasn’t moved past the Judiciary Committee. Iraqis with unresolved cases remain in one kind of purgatory or another. ACLU of Michigan attorneys have estimated that about a thousand people are still at risk.
Lately, I’m having trouble reaching Peter again. I presume that Mimi joined him in Canada late in 2021, though I can’t confirm it. Bajoka tells me Peter is doing what several of his Iraqi clients have done—gone completely silent and trying to move on with life. I’m still Facebook friends with Peter, though his posts are few and far between, and they all seem to speak to his sense of displacement. He most often posts photos and videos taken at Windsor’s Reaume Park, which overlooks the Detroit River and a view of the United States, about four tenths of a mile away. Most have no narration or caption, just a phone camera panning across the choppy blue gray water and Detroit’s skyscrapers. The Ambassador Bridge looms.
One was different, however: A May 2021 photo he posted was taken at the same park, at sunset. Peter, in his trademark white athletic clothes, stands between two men in Detroit Lions and Adidas gear who have Chaldean names. The caption reads, “We’re starting from the bottom & We’re gonna work our way up again in our new Country.” It’s punctuated with a sunglasses emoji and a Canadian flag. Detroit is behind them, and they’re all smiling.