Standing in the small chapel at Our Lady of Perpetual Help on a crisp April morning, it would be easy to exoticize the Iraqi worshipers, gathered for Monday Mass and tethered to ancient roots. The lingering aroma of incense clings to the thick carpet and dark upholstery of the Chaldean Catholic church in suburban Detroit. The ornate icons, candles, and rosaries evoke a more gilded era of Catholicism. Chanting in Arabic, some of the women gently sway under delicate white lace veils.
It doesn’t look like a community on the brink of being torn apart.
When news broke in the summer of 2017 that the US government planned to deport 1,400 Iraqis, it sounded at a national level like yet another immigration story. Mostly men with felony records, the group had been living under “final orders of removal”: a judicial sentence deferred for 5, 10, 20, and even 30 years in some cases because of continuing instability in Iraq.
But a closer look at one of the largest concentrations of Iraqi American Christians, Detroit’s Chaldean community, reveals a portrait of a people whose past and future are deeply interwoven with colliding interests and cultures. It is, in short, a more American story.
It also illustrates how the near-universal sympathy of American Christians for the persecuted church abroad clashes with their divided political views back home. And not just views on immigration policies. The Chaldean Christians’ presence in the United States, their experience here, and the threat of their forced return to Iraq—something many of them consider a death sentence—are inseparable from America’s foreign policy, criminal justice system, and economic inequities.
In the aftermath of the Gulf War, John and Rumel Aslivo’s father was killed in 1991 while working as a local contractor for the US government’s Military Coordination Center in Iraq. Since that time, increasing numbers of Iraqi civilians have worked as US fixers, translators, and security personnel. In 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported that about 118,000 Iraqi civilians were under contract with the US Armed Forces.
To support his five siblings and mother, 15-year-old John followed in his father’s footsteps, working for the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance—and strengthening the family’s bond to an American military that seemed ever present.
Though huge numbers of America’s living veterans and active servicemen and women have served in Iraq over the course of two wars—the Gulf War (1990–91) and the Iraq War (2003–2011)—for most civilians the Middle Eastern nation remains mysterious and “other.”
Evangelicals were among the first Americans to travel to the region—then known as Mesopotamia—during a foreign missions boom in the 1830s. As industrious as those missionaries were in founding schools and hospitals, evangelism did not ultimately lead to the now well-trodden path between the US and Iraq. Oil did.
American economic interests in the region predate the creation of an independent Iraqi state. In 1928, a year after oil was discovered, five American oil companies formed a consortium that took 23.75 percent ownership in the Iraq Petroleum Company.
At the same time that oil was drawing Americans to Iraq, it was pulling Iraq’s historic Catholics to the US. Beginning around 1910, rural Chaldeans in search of better economic opportunity began making their way to Detroit, where the automobile industry was booming. They established a community that continued to grow throughout the 20th century as adherents to the ancient Christian tradition faced growing persecution across the Middle East.
The Chaldean Chamber of Commerce, headquartered in the Detroit Metro Area, estimates that of the 500,000 Chaldeans living in the US, 160,000 live in and around Detroit.
The Aslivos are among them. Because of John’s job with the US government, the family was included in a massive evacuation following Operation Desert Strike in 1996. Once in America, they made their way to Detroit, where they knew they could find cultural and religious support.
They settled in the only neighborhood they could afford: Seven Mile. John soon joined the military, training US troops in language and culture ahead of deployment to Iraq. In contrast, Rumel stayed behind and started down a path similar to many local young men.
Detroit City Limits
Six years after the Aslivos arrived, the rapper Eminem would grant national notoriety to the adjacent Eight Mile neighborhood in an eponymous film about poverty, violence, and segregation in Detroit. More recently, a six-part documentary on YouTube explores how the Seven Mile Bloods gang controlled Detroit’s east side through violence and racketeering for decades, while drugs moved freely through the streets. If Eight Mile is the border between a struggling major city and its more affluent suburbs, neighboring Seven Mile is one layer deeper into the struggle.
Rumel was 13 when he arrived in Seven Mile. The unemployment rate in urban Detroit was 10 percent, and the city was in the midst of a widely reported depopulation—a downward trend that continues today.
He became one of thousands of youth in a hollowed-out economy with few legitimate avenues to earn a living wage.
Today, at 36, Rumel looks athletic. He has a square jaw, compact build, and steady gaze. When he met CT in April 2019, he was awaiting the imminent arrival of his first daughter. He showed up at the cozy office of Our Lady of Perpetual Help priest Fadi Philip with Tim Horton’s coffee for everyone.
Despite being a husband and expectant father, employed and churchgoing in suburban Detroit, Rumel still carries a remnant of the Seven Mile swagger he earned surviving as a poor immigrant kid running with a tough crowd. He makes no excuses. “I got caught up with them,” he said.
In 2003, he was driving a car for some friends with drugs on them. Because of the amount, the police charged everyone in the car with intent to sell. Rumel pleaded guilty to controlled substance delivery, a misdemeanor. In 2007, he was arrested on the same charge—only this time, it was a felony because of the amount of drugs in the car.
During those years, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that in America’s 75 largest counties, less than 1 percent of drug offenses like Rumel’s went to trial. Virtually everyone took a plea deal. Rumel had signed a guilty plea in 2003, not understanding that it would make the second conviction more severe. He signed the 2007 felony plea not knowing that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be waiting outside to deliver what is known as a final order of removal. He was now deportable, with no possibility of obtaining a green card or US citizenship. The only thing keeping him in America was the fact that Iraq
wouldn’t take him.
With only a few exceptions, Iraq has refused to accept deportees since the Iraq War, saying the Arab government cannot ensure their safety. While violent persecution has lessened since ISIS was forced back and largely defeated in the region, Open Doors still ranks Iraq as No. 13 among the 50 nations where it’s most dangerous to follow Jesus. Many religious freedom advocates and even governments—including the US State Department in March 2016—have pointed to the declining Christian population as evidence of genocidal efforts against religious minorities.
In contrast, the US Supreme Court declined this May to hear the appeal of a Chaldean man who spent five years in prison on a drug conviction and was fighting his deportation to Iraq under the UN Convention Against Torture. (However, neither the high court nor the prior appeals court ruled on the merits of his fear of torture for being Christian.)
Like the rest of the 1,400 Iraqis marked for deportation, Rumel served his time and went on with his life, regularly checking in with immigration officials. In 2018, Detroit announced Project Clean Slate to help felons get their records expunged. Such “second chance” programs are widely popular and have support among most Christians, who also believe—more strongly than the general population—that restoration should be the goal of America’s criminal justice system.
A Barna Group study sponsored by Prison Fellowship, which founded Second Chance Month in April 2017, reported in 2018 that almost all practicing evangelicals agree strongly (61%) or somewhat (38%) with the following statement: “Once someone with a criminal history has completed their just punishment, they deserve a second chance to become productive members of the community.”
Rumel would be eligible for such a program, but it wouldn’t help him in immigration court. Even expunged or sealed records don’t undo final orders of removal. For immigrants, there are no second chances.
And Philip, the priest at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, explains without equivocation: For Iraqi Christians in her church who have Americanized, like Rumel, deportation is a death sentence.
Ashourina Slewo was 21 years old when she answered the phone on Sunday, June 11, 2017. It was a family friend in California, looking for her father. “Tell your dad to get out of Michigan,” she recalls the friend saying. The roundups had begun again.
Three months prior, the US government had provided a list of about 1,400 names to the Iraqi government. These were the deportees the US wanted to repatriate to Iraq in exchange for removing the nation from President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
Court documents later revealed a group of eight Iraqis had been deported that April, only to sit on a tarmac in Iraq for hours while the two governments negotiated. They eventually got off the plane, but internal ICE memos indicate the agency was doubtful that another such maneuver would be successful.
The Chaldeans had been confident they would not be deported, Slewo said. They had vocally supported Trump’s candidacy, as he promised to protect persecuted Christians.That promise helped Trump flip Macomb County, home to many Detroit-area Chaldeans with US citizenship, and pull swing state Michigan into his column, helping him secure the presidency. As Chaldean leader Martin Manna told the Christian Post in 2016, “Our community voted like it never has.”
One of those supporters was Slewo’s father. As a non-citizen, he couldn’t vote, but he was vocal in encouraging other Chaldeans to vote for Hillary Clinton’s rival. Many in the community openly expressed their confidence in Trump, saying, as Chaldean lawyer Nadine Kalasho recalled to CT, “There’s no way he’s going to send Christians back.”
But some of those Christians were also convicted felons, a group Trump had vowed to target for immigration enforcement. The problem, Kalasho said, is that “felon” sounds dangerous. It’s hard to argue that someone dangerous should be allowed to stay in the US. But for immigrants from Arab countries, a felony conviction is easier to get than one might think.
The Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank, concluded in March that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than the general US population, according to studies from both immigrant advocates and criminologists. Still, Kalasho has observed that those who do end up in court—especially those with dark skin or non-white facial features, who do not speak English as their first language, or who come from cultures where remorse is expressed differently than in America—are unlikely to get a reduced sentence or total acquittal. “The justice system for brown folks in general is bad; for immigrant communities, it’s terrible,” she said.
Carlos Berdejó, a researcher at Loyola Law School, found that plea deals tend to discriminate against minority defendants. He found that first-time defendants who are black can’t “plea down” their charges as successfully as first-time white defendants for the same crimes. The Equal Justice Initiative, led by Christian lawyer Bryan Stevenson, has highlighted Berdejó’s work amid its ongoing investigation of racial bias in the US justice system.
A lot of felonies that end in final deportation orders relate to domestic violence, several Detroit Chaldeans told CT. Behavior that is often permissible within marriages in Iraq is considered abusive in the US. Because immigrant women now have a way to make it stop—calling the police—they often do.