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 US 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 US 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 US 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.