By Yasmeen Altaji, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Third country removals have been the default method for potentially dangerous deportations. Experts say that under the Biden administration, this may need to change.
When Jimmy Aldaoud was deported from the U.S. to Iraq, it was his first time there. He was diabetic with severe mental illness and didn’t speak Arabic. The Washington Post, among other outlets, reported his death from a lack of insulin shortly after his arrival in Baghdad.
Aldaoud was a Chaldean Catholic born to a family of Iraqis in a refugee camp in Greece, which doesn’t recognize birthright citizenship. When Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided Aldaoud’s church in Detroit, Mich., his status as an Iraqi national warranted his deportation to Iraq.
Cases like Aldaoud’s are recurring.
In Michigan, an estimated one thousand Chaldean Christians face immediate risk of deportation. Reps. Andy Levin and John Moolenaar led a bipartisan push to provide relief to them and their families, recently expressed in a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in February.
His supporters and others fighting for immigration reform in the United States have been frustrated that Aldaoud’s death could have been avoided. Steven Oshana, executive director of A Demand for Action and a member of the Democratic National Committee’s Ethnic Coordinating Committee is one of many who fought for Aldaoud’s protection.
So far, he said, the default solution for situations like Aldaoud’s has been case-by-case, individually determined deportation to a third country.
Third country deportations take place in order to protect refugees or immigrants who might face persecution or death in their home countries.
Oshana said that in Aldaoud’s case, Armenian diplomats made quite clear their commitment to “protecting Assyrians,” Iraq’s third largest ethnic minority. “In diplomatic terms,” Oshana said, “that’s a pretty open invitation to…make the request [for removal in Armenia].” But the U.S. government failed to make the required motion.
The Chaldean Catholic community is among many ethnic and religious minorities, including Assyrians and Yazidis, who face violent persecution in Iraq. “I get a little frustrated when I talk about [Aldaoud’s case],” Oshana said. “That [case] was one of the most painful things for me.”
Michael Ibrahim, an immigration lawyer based in Chicago, explains that third country removability falls under the authority of the DHS, and eligibility is determined along the guidelines of Withholding of Removal (WOR) or protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT), which is available to anyone regardless of their criminal history.
In either case, Ibrahim said, “the DHS has the right to find another country to which the non-citizen can be removed.” From there, the DHS contacts the third country and, if that country agrees to receive an individual, authorities in the U.S. can remove the individual there.
These constitute steps the U.S. government must take in order not to violate international law, as codified by the U.N.’s principle of non-refoulement, which discourages host countries from sending migrants back to a place where they could face persecution.
Former President Donald Trump tried a distorted version of the practice in 2019, when he reached an agreement with leaders in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, designating them as “safe third countries” for immigrants to pass through and seek asylum in. Critics, however, argued that the execution of Trump’s plan did more harm than good, effectively sending migrants back to the countries which they had fled.
Crystal Kassab Jabiro is a member of the Chaldean Assyrian Advisory Council, which was recruited when Biden’s Michigan campaign launched in Oct. 2020. She said that, realistically, Levin’s action will at most delay refugees’ deportations long enough to give them a court hearing, which otherwise is not guaranteed.
“We would wish that the [deportations] are halted permanently,” Jabiro said. “We also understand that…we have to follow the rule of law. Giving them their day in court would be the right thing.”
Ibrahim said that “Some Iraqi non-citizens were already “ordered deported/removed” due to their criminal history. That is, some Iraqis committed crimes that do not allow them to request relief from deportation/removal, and so they simply “took” a deportation/removal order. For decades, the U.S. government could not repatriate them to Iraq. That changed under Trump, briefly, Ibrahim said.
Oshana said that third-country deportations have historically been a last resort — a request made on a case-by-case basis to protect an individual from the risks of returning to their national countries, including persecution or death. But he argues that third-country deportations are not a feasible long-term policy. The Biden administration’s recovery from Trump-era immigration policy might require moving past temporary solutions like third-country deportations toward permanent policy that ensures immigrant protection in the long run.
Oshana said that reforming immigration policies internally — doing away with policies that deport immigrants for petty crimes, for instance — and enhancing foreign policy to aid countries outside of the U.S. that receive high volumes of migrants, are key.
“Reform our immigration system so a traffic ticket or a DUI doesn’t get you deported,” Oshana said. “I think that’s a pretty fair place to start.”
Experts anticipate an influx of Iraqi refugees, and others, with Biden’s recent and pressured decision to increase the cap on refugee admissions to the U.S. from 15,000 at the end of the Trump years to 62,500. Oshana said that under the Obama administration, from 10,000 to 20,000 Iraqi refugees were admitted to the United States per year, with Christians accounting for about 40 to 60% of those. Advocates for immigration reform believe that this move is a step in the right direction.
“That was a pretty robust number for the Assyrian community,” Oshana said.
Although Trump-era immigration policies and the consequent “Muslim ban” led to a hiccup in U.S. immigration trends, Oshana anticipates that, with help from Biden administration’s new cap and relaxed covid restrictions, the refugee intake from Iraq will be back to historically normal U.S. volumes by the fall.
“Having an administration that is not pushing an anti-immigrants rhetoric, that does not make immigrants the boogie man, so to speak, benefits the [immigrant] community,” Oshana said. “When we have an administration that’s not rounding us up and sending us back…that helps us.”