One Family’s Fight Against Trump’s Unlawful Deportation Machine
Sam Hamama Hasn’t Lived in Iraq for 40 years. The Government Wants to Deport Him into a War Zone Anyway.
Sam Hamama and his family’s ordeal began on June 11.
It was a Sunday, and for Sam, it was unusual for him to be at home. He had requested the day off from work to attend the funeral of his wife Nahrain’s first cousin. Afterward, while Nahrain stayed with their extended family, Sam planned to take Lauren, their middle daughter, to her soccer banquet at her school.
That morning, the Hamamas were in various stages of getting dressed when the doorbell rang. Sam, Nahrain, and Britanny, the oldest daughter, all made it to the front door at the same time. Four men were outside the house wearing vests emblazoned with “Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
Sam opened the door and told them to come in. An agent said that he had to come with them and would meet with the Iraqi consul the next morning. Sam regularly checked in with an immigration officer, but was not due back until the following week.
He is one of more than 1,400 Iraqi nationals across the United States who are asking a federal court to stop their immediate removal to Iraq, where they fear near-certain persecution, torture, or death.
“He was literally in his t-shirt and underwear,” said Nahrain. “They asked him to get dressed, don’t put a belt on. He wears a cross and wedding band, he was asked to remove those.”
Sam, who had open heart surgery in 2005, collected the 10 different types of medicine that he needs to take each day to bring with him. He asked for time to hug his four children and wife. Britanny gave him a rosary — the Hamamas are Chaldean Christians — which he was permitted to bring. When Nahrain asked what this was all about, the officers said that they didn’t know but that Sam would come home the next day. More than a month later, Sam is still detained in St. Clair County, Michigan. He is one of more than 1,400 Iraqi nationals across the United States who are asking a federal court to stop their immediate removal to Iraq, where they fear near-certain persecution, torture, or death.
“And that was it. It was just a horrible Sunday. You know, they handcuffed him. He’s not a prisoner, he’s not a criminal. Why did they have to handcuff him?” said Nahrain. “My children were crying. The youngest just didn’t understand what was going on and why her dad was being arrested. It was just a horrible sight.”
The Kind of Person He Is
Sam and Nahrain Hamama first met in the United States when they were 16 through a mutual friend. They were young but already shared a lot in common, including their devout Christian upbringing and leaving their country of birth, Iraq, as children.
Married in 1994, Sam and Nahrain set out to build a life in the same suburb of Detroit, where they attended high school. Sam, who worked in his family store since age 14, was an entrepreneur at heart. First, he opened a deli with his brother, and then later he and Nahrain started their own pizza catering business. Until he was detained, Sam managed a family market, with a team of 38 employees under his supervision.
Their family grew with the birth of their first daughter Britanny, followed by her siblings Christopher, Lauren, and Lindsey. The Hamamas are extremely tight-knit. Britanny, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, studying biomolecular science, often talks to her father twice a day on the phone.
Once when Britanny was returning to college after a school break, she brought back a box of chocolate brittles. She told her dad on the phone that her friends had loved them. The next day, a whole case arrived to the dorm. As a manager, Sam looks out for his employees and wider community. He has purchased cars for employees without transportation and once donated funds to the local police force to train a K9 dog in appreciation for looking out for the store.
“That’s just the kind of person he is,” said Nahrain. “If my mom needs something done, it will be done before she knows it.”
No Home There
The Hamamas didn’t know it at the time, but they were one of many families in Michigan raided by ICE agents that morning. More than 100 individuals were detained in total. Many of the men and women arrested in the sweep, like Sam, had been living in the United States for decades. For most, the government had previously ordered them removed to Iraq — either for overstaying visas or for previous criminal convictions.
Twenty-eight years ago, Sam made a mistake. He flashed an unloaded gun at another driver during a road confrontation in 1988. He was sentenced to two years in prison. At the time of the incident, the crime was not a deportable offense. Later the government issued a removal order for Sam, but did not try to send him back. As a matter of policy, the United States has not deported people to Iraq because of dangerous country conditions. This dated back to the time of Saddam Hussein’s rule. In recent years, the Iraqi government has refused to issue travel documents to people who did not have proof they were Iraqi citizens, which includes most individuals who came here as refugees and as children. In March, however, Iraq agreed to accept Iraqis removed from the United States back into the country, in exchange for being kept off of President Trump’s travel ban. Suddenly, any Iraqi with an open removal order was a target, including Sam.
“I can’t imagine landing there, where would you go? Who would you talk to? What would you do?”
Following his prison sentence, Sam was able to resume his life, earn a living, and build a family. In 2011, the government began requiring Sam to check in annually with an immigration officer, which he did.
He has never been in trouble with the law since.
Now, however, because of the removal order from more than 20 years ago, Sam may be forced to leave his family behind. When Nahrain tries to picture what it would be like to live in Iraq, she has to Google it. Nahrain and Sam have few memories of Iraq. It is simply not the same country that they left behind as children, following two wars with the United States, the destabilization of the government, and the rise of the ISIS. Neither Nahrain nor Sam has a single relative in Iraq.
“All of our family members are here, our priests are here, and we have no home there,” said Nahrain. “I can’t imagine landing there, where would you go? Who would you talk to? What would you do?”
The last time Sam was in Iraq was 1974.
A Target as Soon as He Steps off the Plane
The only certain thing if Sam returned to Iraq is that his life would be in immediate danger. The Hamamas are Chaldean Christians, an ethnic and religious minority whose origins lie in the Assyrian Empire, an ancient Mesopotamian kingdom located in modern day Northern Iraq and Southeastern Turkey. The persecution of Chaldean Christians in Iraq has been well documented, with reports of Iraqi Christians fleeing the country en masse in the summer of 2014 as ISIS gained ground in Northern Iraq. For Sam, who does not speak Arabic and has a cross tattoo on his wrist, both his faith and easily-perceivable American upbringing will make him a target from the moment he steps off the plane.
"But if anything, I think America needs more people like my dad.”
The move by the federal government to begin deporting Iraqis to such a dangerous place was shocking to many, especially in light of Trump administration’s vocal concern for Christians in the Middle East. Only nine days after his inauguration, Donald Trump tweeted, “Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!” At a speech in May, Vice President Mike Pence told the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians that the “the suffering of Christians in the Middle East has stirred Americans to action.” Despite the rhetoric, the Hamamas have found themselves caught in Trump’s deportation dragnet, as have Muslim families who also have legitimate fears of persecution and death should they be forced to return to Iraq. The majority of ISIS’s victims are, in fact, Muslims and the group has waged sustained and violent attacks against Shiite Muslims in particular.
In a travel alert on June 14, just days after Sam’s arrest, the U.S. Department of State warned American citizens against all travel to the country. In 2016 alone, an estimated 16,000 civilians were killed in Iraq.
A Nationwide Plea
On June 15, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit to immediately stop the deportations of approximately 115 Iraqi nationals residing in Michigan on the grounds that the federal government is violating both American and international law.
The Immigration and Nationality Act prohibits the government from removing a noncitizen to a country where that person’s life or freedom would be in danger because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. The U.N. Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a signatory, prohibits the return of a person to a country “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”
ACLU lawyers immediately charged back to court to urge Judge Goldsmith to extend protection to all Iraqi nationals residing in the United States with final orders of removal.
Our plaintiffs, Christians and Muslims, have the right to a day in court to demonstrate the likelihood that they will be persecuted on one of the five protected grounds under federal law.
United States District Court Judge Mark A. Goldsmith issued a temporary order to prevent the government from deporting anyone while he reviewed the case. In his ruling, the judge noted that the potential harm to the plaintiffs, “far outweighs any conceivable interest the Government might have in the immediate enforcement of the removal orders.”
At the same time as Michigan families received a reprieve, word was coming in across the country that there were Iraqis set for imminent deportation in other states. ACLU lawyers immediately charged back to court to urge Judge Goldsmith to extend protection to all Iraqi nationals residing in the United States with final orders of removal.
On July 6, Judge Goldsmith issued an order to extend the stay nationally while he made a decision to hear the full case. The government originally argued that the decision to hold deportations should not be decided by a federal court. In the case’s latest development, the judge stated that were he to cede jurisdiction over the case, petitioners would be exposed to “substantiated risk of death, torture, or other grave persecution before their legal claims can be tested in a court.” In his ruling, the judge wrote, “Without a stay in place, deportations will begin immediately, which may mean a death sentence for some deportees. Petitioners have presented significant evidence — not contested by the Government — that many will face death.”
The America I Know
For Nahrain, the reality of the situation remains a shock. It’s difficult to reconcile the America that she knows and loves with a country that seeks to deport people to places where they will face persecution or death.
“I heard about someone the other day, he’s being detained for a DUI,” Nahrain recounts. “Seriously? It’s a mistake but you just cannot deport someone, break up a family, and send someone to a country to be persecuted for driving under the influence.”
Her children, all American citizens, are stunned that their father could simply be taken away. “That’s what people think, that they are removing the criminals who are a threat to society,” said Britanny. “But if anything, I think America needs more people like my dad.”
Sam made one mistake years ago, for which he had paid his debt. Now, he and his family will be punished severely, with no recognition of the contributions he has made to his community and this country.