The Next Jimmy Aldaoud

The Michigan man who died after being deported to Iraq—a country he’d never been to—was not an anomaly.

Protesters rally outside a federal court in Detroit.
Protesters rally outside a federal court in Detroit on June 21, 2017.
Reuters/Rebecca Cook

The death of Jimmy Aldaoud, a Michigan man deported to Iraq, was a dismal cap on an already dark day for immigration justice. On Wednesday last week, social media and TV news were still reeling at videos of children sobbing at their parents’ arrest during that morning’s massive immigration raids when, that evening, news of Aldaoud’s death broke, accompanied by its own viral clip taken roughly six weeks before he died.

In Aldaoud’s video, the 41-year-old—unshaven and wearing a large red T-shirt—attempts to describe his struggle surviving in Iraq: He had no language skills, no luggage from home, no place to live, and no family connections, and he was experiencing frequent illness from poorly treated diabetes, the likely cause of his untimely passing. Press reports also revealed that Aldaoud was severely mentally ill, adding to his vulnerability.

Even absent the heart-wrenching footage, the simple facts of Aldaoud’s case were enough to shock the public conscience. As I reported, documents from his immigration file indicate that, as he claimed in the video, he had never been to Iraq before his deportation. He was born in Greece in February 1978 to Iraqi parents, who brought him to the United States as part of a refugee resettlement program just 15 months later. He lived a full 40 years in and around Detroit—much of that time homeless as he grappled with mental health troubles. He was only deportable because, unlike the other foreign-born members of his family, he never went through the process of gaining U.S. citizenship, and had committed crimes that negated his status as a legal permanent resident.

“I don’t understand this country,” he told me during a phone call from Baghdad a month before he died. “I step outside and I don’t understand the language. I don’t understand anything.”

In contemplating the circumstances behind Aldaoud’s deportation and death, it’s worth taking a step back to ask why Immigration and Customs Enforcement went after him in the first place. After all, there are significantly more deportable immigrants living in the United States than the agency has the capacity to remove. Setting aside the inherent cruelty involved in deporting anyone, why target a homeless, mentally ill man who had never stepped foot in his supposed home country, a man whose lawyers claim they “knew he would not survive if deported”?

To such questions, ICE’s responses—and those of the Trump administration’s nativist supporters—have involved hiding behind Aldaoud’s criminal record (which is lengthy, due to a rough childhood home life and routine homelessness as an adult). It’s a tendency that stems from the U.S. homeland security apparatus’s long-standing fixation on the “public safety threat” of “criminal aliens,” which ignores immigrant crime statistics as well as the fact that immigrants face the same criminal justice system as native-born U.S. citizens.

And, as has been the case with seemingly every facet of immigration enforcement, the Trump administration has taken this fixation on immigrant criminality into overdrive, launching a wide-reaching campaign that has targeted Iraqis and immigrants of other nationalities—mainly from Africa and Asia—whom ICE was previously unable to deport. As a result, thousands of people like Aldaoud—many of them refugees who have lived in the United States for decades—are facing deportation to dangerous places or to countries they barely know.

In 2016, Congress decided that ICE had a problem. Or rather, Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee (who retired in 2017 and is now a Fox News commentator), thought that ICE had a problem.

During a July committee hearing with top officials from ICE and the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, Chaffetz brought up the issue of “recalcitrant” countries—foreign governments that refuse to cooperate with the U.S.’s deportation process. There were, in his opinion, an alarming number of deportable immigrants living in the United States whom ICE couldn’t remove because their native countries wouldn’t take them back.

Chaffetz highlighted how, under existing immigration law, the executive branch is required to withhold visas from citizens of such countries in order to pressure their governments into cooperation, but the only time an administration had done so was in 2001 against the relatively unpopulous nation of Guyana. Growing agitated, he also pointed out that some immigrants with orders of removal to recalcitrant countries carry criminal convictions—and he conjured up an especially egregious case of a Connecticut woman’s murder at the hands of a deportable man with a criminal record from partially recalcitrant Haiti to make his point.

ICE and State Department officials at the hearing tried to explain that, for more than a year, they had been in talks with the governments of Liberia, Guinea, China, India, Cuba, and other nations to address their cooperation, and they expected positive results in some of those negotiations soon. (At that point, Obama administration officials had also tried several times to get Iraq to cooperate in the deportation process, but to no avail.) But that wasn’t enough for Chaffetz. With tepid support from then–Democratic ranking member Elijah Cummings, he demanded more concrete action.

“You are so worried about playing nice instead of implementing the law,” he scolded. “These people are committing more crimes … get them out.”

Four months later, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. And less than three months after that—a week after his inauguration—his administration proved that it wasn’t worried about playing nice by issuing an executive order barring nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

Though the ban had an obvious primary goal—keeping Muslims out of the country—an ancillary effect was a step toward achieving Chaffetz’s vision. Among the seven sanctioned countries was recalcitrant Iraq, and soon after the order’s signing, the Trump administration gave Baghdad an ultimatum: We’ll take you off the travel-ban list if you start taking back your deportable nationals. According to comments from State Department officials at the time, Iraq agreed to that deal, and in March 2017, after a federal court struck down Trump’s original Muslim ban, he issued a new one, this time sans Iraq. Then, in April, ICE successfully removed an initial flight of eight Iraqis, and in June, agents staged mass raids in an attempt to make a dent in the list of roughly 1,400 more U.S. residents eligible for deportation to Iraq.

Because of a legal battle with the American Civil Liberties Union, ICE only became free to take action against those 1,400 Iraqis in April of this year. In early June, agents deported Jimmy Aldaoud, and two months later, he was dead.

Iraq isn’t the only country to have faced the Trump administration’s ramped-up anti-recalcitrance crusade. The same week he signed the first Muslim ban, Trump also signed a sweeping immigration executive order, which included a section ordering the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to prioritize deportations as a topic in their diplomatic negotiations with foreign leaders.

Since that executive order’s signing 2½ years ago, the administration has doggedly cracked down on recalcitrant countries. As outlined in a March 2019 report from the DHS’s Office of the Inspector General, in 2017 and 2018, the department imposed visa sanctions on Cambodia, Eritrea, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Myanmar, and Laos in an effort to coerce their governments into cooperating with U.S. deportations. And administration officials have attempted to intimidate several more nations via other means.

As Minnesota’s Star Tribune reported in 2017, Somalia’s place on the travel-ban list was a major factor in the Somali government’s decision to begin accepting more U.S. deportees; from 2016 to 2017, Somalia transitioned from “uncooperative” to “other” on the DHS scale of recalcitrance, and removals to the East African country rose by 260 percent. Under behind-the-scenes pressure, Mauritania also started issuing more of the travel documents required for deportation. And over the past two years, the Trump administration has threatened sanctions several times in an attempt to renege on an agreement between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments, which states that Vietnam won’t accept deportees who moved to the United States before 1995. As part of the Vietnam pressure campaign, ICE even took the step of detaining dozens of Vietnamese-born U.S. residents who fell under the agreement, despite the fact that Vietnam hadn’t agreed to repatriate them. Some stayed in detention for more than a year before a court ordered them released.

The most successful of the Trump administration’s recalcitrance crackdowns has been on Cambodia. As is the case with Iraq and Vietnam, the Cambodians subject to the operation are largely refugees who came to the U.S. decades ago—refugees like Sothy Kum, whom ICE deported in April 2018 despite immigrating to Wisconsin in 1981 after his family fled the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge.

Kum is one of the immigrants Chaffetz wanted “out” because they were “committing more crimes.” Kum’s deportable crime: possession of marijuana with intent to deliver. Because of his conviction for that victimless offense, ICE deported him to a country he hadn’t seen since he was a young child—away from his friends, siblings, son, and father. Now, he has to rebuild his life in Cambodia; his wife, Lisa, and his 3-year-old daughter, Emma, made the permanent move to Phnom Penh last month so their family could be together.

Kevin Lo, an immigration attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s Asian Law Caucus, said his organization has talked to hundreds of Cambodians with old removal orders. “It’s been pretty consistent where their convictions and crimes were from the ’90s or early 2000s,” he said. And the sentiment among them is often the same: “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my past, I’ve served my time, but now I have a family and kids and everything, so why send me back now?”

Since the Trump administration sanctioned high-ranking Cambodian officials in September 2017, the Cambodian government has accepted four large flights of its deportable nationals, totaling about 150 deportations. ICE plans to increase that pace in the months and years to come.

In addition to the indignity of banishment to a country they barely know, some immigrants who have fallen under the Trump administration’s crackdown on recalcitrant governments fear that the countries to which ICE is trying to send them aren’t safe.

Many Eritreans, for example, fear forced conscription; one deportee who was denied asylum in the U.S. was apparently so distraught at returning to his native country in 2018 that he killed himself while in transit. Mauritanians—98 of whom were deported in 2018, up from only eight in 2017—worry about “race-based discrimination, violence, and slavery.” Asylum-seekers from Cameroon—not technically recalcitrant but one of the “most challenging countries” when it comes to facilitating removals, according to DHS—are facing increased deportations to a deadly civil conflict.

Similarly, many Somali refugees fear that ICE will deport them to the same insurgent and government violence from which they’d fled. And they can now point to the case of one man, Ahmed Salah Hassan, as proof of their concerns: As the Daily Beast reported last week, Hassan traversed Africa and Latin America in order to seek asylum in the United States, only to be held in immigration detention for two years and then deported. In March, he was killed in a restaurant bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia, at the age of 30.

Since ICE began raiding Iraqi communities in June 2017, community members have expressed immense fear that deportees will face torture or even death. For one, the Iraqis ICE has targeted for deportation have been disproportionately Christian, and their loved ones worry about the possibility of religious-based persecution. Because of war, the rise of ISIS, and the proliferation of rogue militias in Iraq, as many as 80 percent of Christians have fled or were killed since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Furthermore, as is the case with several other formerly recalcitrant countries, ICE has been deporting Iraqis with nothing more than one-way travel documents, which don’t qualify as proper Iraqi identification. ID is crucial in Iraq, with its ubiquitous checkpoints operated by unpredictable myriad government and informal security forces, many of which are quick to use torture as an interrogation tactic. For those with no comprehension of Arabic and no family connections in the country, danger can lurk anywhere, and a lack of identification increases that danger.

The deportations are “inhumane,” said Eva Shamou, whose uncle was deported to Iraq less than a month ago. (She asked that his name not be used out of fear for his safety.) According to Shamou, her uncle, who is Christian and immigrated to the U.S. in 1983, has found it nearly impossible to navigate Iraq. He was deported with no luggage and no Iraqi identity documents. She said he tried to find shelter with multiple churches, but they turned him away. He would occasionally stay with Aldaoud in another deportee’s apartment, but after Aldaoud’s death, he had to transfer to a refugee camp, where he’s been living since.

“He’s living basically hour to hour,” Shamou said. “We don’t want another body to come back like [Aldaoud].”

According to a data analysis conducted by NBC News in November, there are approximately 120,000 deportable immigrants living in the U.S. from the 59 countries ICE has recently labeled “uncooperative” or “at risk of noncompliance” with the removal process. Their fates largely rest on the success or failure of the administration’s diplomatic efforts, but advocates and immigrant communities have been taking action too.

For Iraqis, the ACLU lawsuit was able to stall ICE for nearly two years. Now legislators are getting involved. For months, members of Congress have been urging the Trump administration to halt deportations to Iraq; on Tuesday, 41 House Democrats sent a letter to the president arguing that Aldaoud’s death proves the urgency of the situation. And in May, Democratic Rep. Andy Levin and Republican Rep. John Moolenaar—both from Michigan, where a lion’s share of ICE raids on Iraqis have occurred—introduced legislation aimed at granting “deferred removal” status to certain deportable Iraqis for two years, which the lawmakers reason would grant them enough time to argue their cases for protection in the U.S.’s heavily backlogged immigration courts (and perhaps outlast the Trump administration).

Meanwhile, both lawyers and grassroots communities have been organizing to save Cambodians from deportation. Lo of Asian Americans Advancing Justice estimates that, due in part to definitional changes in deportable crimes in recent decades, about half of Cambodians with old deportation orders have grounds to reopen their cases—it’s just a matter of gathering the right paperwork and convincing immigration judges to give them that opportunity, which is not always easy. And for those whose crimes don’t fall under those categories, Cambodian communities across the U.S. have, with some success, been pressuring their governors to grant them pardons, thus allowing them openings to get their deportation orders canceled.

All told, the tens of thousands of immigrants with removal orders to recalcitrant countries are living a precarious and stressful existence under the Trump administration. There’s little telling who will get to stay, who will get deported, and who will be the next Jimmy Aldaoud.