Legend has it that Abgar V, “the Black,” ruler of the small Mesopotamian kingdom of Osroene, was incurably ill when a wanderer anointed by the miracle-worker, Jesus, appeared. The stranger’s name was Addai, or Thaddeus, numbered among the Seventy and sent by the Apostle Thomas, the twin, the doubter. Addai worked a great miracle: He healed the king. Abgar converted to Christianity, as did his kingdom — whereby Christianity came to Iraq.
Two millennia later, Addai’s church is in danger. In 1987, there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. There remain today fewer than 250,000, who for the last 15 years have lived an existence beset by Islamic jihadists — in the mid 2000s, those unleashed by the fall of Saddam Hussein; now, by the soldiers of the Islamic State, who have perpetrated ghastly crimes against Iraq’s Christian population.
Two weeks ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained some 200 Iraqi nationals residing in Michigan, transferring them to a detention center in Youngstown, Ohio, where they are now awaiting deportation. Most of them are Christians, generally Chaldean Catholics. It takes no special imagination to project their fates if returned to their native country.
Over his first six months in office, President Donald Trump has demonstrated his intent to reverse the lax enforcement regime of his predecessor. His hard rhetorical line (and that of Attorney General Jeff Sessions), along with increased border security, has led to a dramatic decline in illegal border crossings. The Department of Homeland Security reported that apprehensions at the border had fallen by 76 percent from January to May. Meanwhile, ramped-up ICE activity and an expanding enforcement infrastructure has struck a blow to the vicious MS-13 gang, which flourished under the Obama administration. President Trump is actually doing what President Obama only promised to do: directing limited immigration-enforcement resources toward securing the border and expelling criminal aliens.
Using a very broad definition, the Iraqis detained by ICE might be among President Trump’s “bad hombres.” Many of them have criminal backgrounds, including for felonies such as aggravated assault, and most are subject to longstanding removal orders. Immigration authorities would have reached them eventually.
But enforcing current immigration law is not a justification for inhumanity, and there is no other description for sending a group of men and women almost certainly to their deaths.
In this particular case, there are other obvious reasons for leniency. The crimes of the aliens in question are generally years old, after which the individuals have maintained clean records; some have had the charges against them expunged. Also, many of these people have been in the United States for decades, some of them having built families since arriving. One petitioner, Usama Jamil “Sam” Hamama, 54 years old, has been in the United States since coming as a refugee – when he was four years old, according to the ACLU’s lawsuit. Those longstanding deportation orders mentioned above have almost all been deferred on previous occasions by immigration authorities, because deportation back to Iraq was dangerous. It should not escape the notice of federal authorities that the situation here is largely one of their own making.
But, more to the point, our immigration laws do not necessitate removing aliens to countries where they face imminent danger. In fact, our laws militate against it (the asylum provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act, for starters), as do our treaty obligations under the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
And neither does our politics demand it, even under a regime of strong immigration enforcement. At the National Prayer Breakfast this spring, President Trump noted the many Muslims in the Middle East who have been “brutalized, victimized, murdered, and oppressed by ISIS killers,” and noted specially the “campaign of . . . genocide against Christians.” More recently, Vice President Mike Pence told the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians that the new administration was dedicated to “reaffirming America’s role as a beacon of hope and life and liberty.” These commitments obviously raise difficult questions about how to handle refugees and the many young aliens in the U.S. unlawfully but by no fault of their own (so-called DREAMers). But exercising discretion in these sorts of deportation cases is one modest way to affirm these commitments.
The detainees, with the help of the ACLU, have filed a class-action suit requesting a stay of deportation, which technically could happen at any time. Several Christian leaders have weighed in on their behalf, among them Franklin Graham and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore. This week, a federal judge granted them a two-week stay, during which they hope to be able to plead their case before an immigration judge.
ICE, the relevant courts, and the powers that be in the Trump administration should work to bring this case to a lawful end that protects these lives. Enforcing our immigration laws does not require us to be pitiless. The only true justice here is mercy.
[Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its original posting.]
— Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the National Review Institute.