FOR TWO YEARS, SAM HAMAMA has been living in a hellish limbo. It all started on a Sunday morning in June 2017, when six agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement came to his home in West Bloomfield, Michigan, while he, his wife and his four children were getting ready to attend a church service. The agents were there to fulfill a more than two-decades-old order to deport Hamama, a 56-year-old grocery store contractor, to Iraq, a country he hadn’t seen in 45 years. They asked him to step outside, then handcuffed him and took him away.
His arrest was part of a nationwide crackdown on Iraqi immigrants early in the Trump administration. In the week when Hamama was detained, ICE swept up more than 200 Iraqi-born residents across the United States—many of whom, like Hamama, hadn’t lived in their native country in decades.
The raids set off an extensive legal battle. With Hamama as the lead plaintiff, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan quickly sued, arguing that Iraq was unsafe for the detainees to return to, and won a series of court orders that barred immigration authorities from deporting the Iraqis until they had a chance to individually petition an immigration judge for protection. But with a backlog of more than 1 million cases, getting a date in immigration court can take years. ICE lawyers filed challenges and, after a year and a half, persuaded judges on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to quash the ACLU’s injunctions. In April, more than 1,000 Iraqis were once again rendered vulnerable to ICE arrest.
In 2019 America, this is where the story usually gets stuck. The increasingly aggressive policing of deportation orders, and lawmakers’ inability to enact policies protecting immigrants, have left many long-time residents helpless to counter ICE’s efforts to detain and remove them—like the agency’s reported plans to round up thousands of undocumented immigrants this coming weekend. But an unusual confluence of immigrant rights advocacy and conservative Christian politics could make these Iraqis a rare case: A bipartisan group of representatives in Congress has introduced legislation that would, for two years, prohibit ICE from arresting most Iraqis with deportation orders while they bring their cases to court.
Passing the bill would be a complex undertaking. It is relatively rare for Congress, rather than the executive branch, to put in place temporary protections from deportation, and even rarer for such legislation to target those with live deportation orders. And with the Trump administration’s immigration record, as well as a divided and at times obstructionist Congress, the bill seems, on its surface, to be a long shot.
But administration officials and legislators from both parties have previously committed to protecting certain Iraqi subgroups—groups that, over the past two decades, have experienced what Congress and the State Department have described as a genocide—creating an opening for a possible political solution. In particular, the White House has been keen on protecting Christians in the Middle East and, according to legislators who spoke to POLITICO Magazine, has expressed interest in addressing the plight of the disproportionately Christian Iraqi immigrant community in the United States.
While the administration continues to house asylum-seeking families in squalid conditions and ban travelers from several Muslim-majority countries, Iraqi immigrants make up one of few groups that have some prospect of gaining protection during the Trump era.
“Every day I think about it,” Hamama told Politico. “I want my chance and that opportunity—that relief.”