ON THE AFTERNOON OF SUNDAY, JUNE 11, a 29-year-old finance lawyer named Wisam Naoum stopped at a gas station to stock up on beer. It was a sunny, hot afternoon, approaching 90 degrees, and Naoum had a leisurely day planned at his sister’s backyard pool. Earlier that morning he had heard rumblings of trouble in his community, but nothing was confirmed, and Naoum was wary of unverified rumors, so he kept his plans with his sister and her family.
Naoum is a well-known figure in his religious community: metro Detroit’s Chaldeans, a sect of Christianity affiliated with the Catholic Church. And the troubling rumors he had been hearing were of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents rounding up Iraqi-born Chaldeans for deportation.
Estimated at 121,000-strong, Michigan’s Chaldean community is the largest in the world outside of Iraq, from where these Aramaic-speaking Mesopotamians claim their ancient roots. It’s a result of multiple waves of immigration, mostly starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when many came to the United States as refugees fleeing anti-Assyrian killings and the chaos of the Iran–Iraq War. Since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, sectarian violence, civil war, and the rise of ISIS have killed or displaced more than two-thirds of Iraq’s Christians.
The Chaldeans of Michigan have a conservative history, consistently supporting the Republican Party with votes and donations, and they voted heavily for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, helping him win Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence inspired many Chaldeans to show up at voting booths with unprecedented enthusiasm by promising to protect persecuted Christians in the Middle East. A Chaldean priest publicly blessed Trump while he was on the campaign trail, and conservative Christians praised Trump’s commitment to Christian minorities on Facebook. Few in the community expected that Trump’s immigration crackdown—touted in part as a means to protect the country from radical Islamists—would come to target them.
But while at the gas station, Naoum received a call from a friend, a prominent Detroit-area attorney. ICE had detained some of his Chaldean clients.