Iraqi-American Christians disappointed with Trump

Standing in the living room of her brother's home in Sterling Heights, Lina Denha wipes away tears with a tissue as she recalls how federal agents arrested him early one Sunday morning this month.

"To just come and grab him in front of his kids and family — that's not right," she said of the June 11 detention of Haydar Butris, 38, one of 114 Iraqi immigrants with criminal records arrested in Michigan.

"He's been here most of his life. He did a mistake. He paid for it. Now, he is a good father, has kids, a family. He works, pays taxes and everything. And you just come knock on the door, come out of nowhere and grab him? That's not right."

Denha's sadness turns to frustration as she expresses disappointment with President Donald Trump, whom she and some other Iraqi-American Christians in Michigan had supported. Denha's sense of betrayal is echoed across metro Detroit among some Iraqi-American Christians who voted for Trump because they hoped he would be sympathetic to their community abroad, where they are a religious minority, and in the U.S.

"We voted for Trump," Denha said. "That's what we get from him? ... Obama is better than him, 100 times."

Trump portrayed himself as a "savior" to Iraqi Christians, said Sterling Heights attorney Wisam Naoum. While on the campaign trail, Trump said that he would work to protect Christians in the Middle East and increase the number of Christian refugees admitted from countries such as Syria and Iraq.

During the campaign, some Iraqi-American Christian leaders met with Trump and his campaign officials, ultimately endorsing him and encouraging others to vote for him. "Chaldeans for Trump" signs appeared at Trump rallies in Michigan, referring to Iraqi Catholics.

Now some Iraqi Christians say that Trump has failed to keep his promises and is actually worse than former President Barack Obama, whose administration in 2010 stopped the deportation of Iraq immigrants with criminal records after considering complaints from Chaldean leaders.

In contrast this month, U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) is strongly defending its recent roundup of 199 Iraqi immigrants nationally (114 of them in metro Detroit) with criminal records. They said the Iraqis arrested were already facing final orders of removal from a judge and all but two were convicted of crimes, ranging from homicide and assault to less serious crimes like marijuana possession in the case of Butris.

ICE suggests more arrests may come as there are hundreds of other Iraqi nationals with final orders of deportation.

Trump "basically sold the community on the idea that he would protect their community in the homeland, that he would prioritize them, that he would be this savior of their people," Naoum said. "It hasn't been even a few months and he's betrayed them."

At an Iraqi-American Christian rally Friday in Detroit, a man held a Christian cross and a sign that read "You Vowed To Protect Us," with a photo of Trump above a tweet from the president in January that read "we can't allow" Christians in the Middle East to be targeted.

ICE suggests more arrests may come as there are hundreds of other Iraqi nationals with final orders of deportation.

Trump "basically sold the community on the idea that he would protect their community in the homeland, that he would prioritize them, that he would be this savior of their people," Naoum said. "It hasn't been even a few months and he's betrayed them."

At an Iraqi-American Christian rally Friday in Detroit, a man held a Christian cross and a sign that read "You Vowed To Protect Us," with a photo of Trump above a tweet from the president in January that read "we can't allow" Christians in the Middle East to be targeted.

"You Vowed To Protect Us," reads sign with Trump photo at protest by Iraqi-American Christians on June 16, 2017, outside Patrick McNamara building in Detroit. The sign has copy of a tweet by Pres. Trump in January that reads "Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!" (Photo: Elaine Cromie, Detroit Free Press)

Many of the Iraqis arrested recently in Michigan are Christian and worry they would be targeted if deported to Iraq, where they are a minority facing threats from extremist groups. Sending them to Iraq would be like a virtual death sentence and violates international treaties, advocates have said. Many legal actions have been filed, including one by the ACLU, to try to stop the deportation process.

In addition to the arrests, Iraqi-American Christians say the Trump administration is ignoring the concerns of religious minorities in Iraq and is strongly supporting Saudi Arabia, which they say is responsible for groups like ISIS that target Christians.

Lina Denha, of Sterling Heights, is concerned about the ICE detention on June 11, 2017, of her brother, Haydar Butris, 38, one of 114 Iraqi immigrants in Michigan arrested by ICE. She spoke on Monday, June 13, 2017, at her brother's home in Sterling Heights. She said she regrets supporting Trump. (Photo: Niraj Warikoo)

Chaldeans, who are Iraqi Catholics, have been active in both the Democratic and Republican parties in Michigan.

It's unclear what percentage of Iraqi-American Christians voted for President Trump since there are no presidential election polls specifically targeting that population, experts say.

According to 2015 U.S. Census figures, there are 46,441 Michiganders with Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac ancestry, three groups that are Iraqi-American Christian ethnicities. There are also an additional 31,863 people in Michigan who identify as having Iraqi ancestry, some of whom are Christian. Chaldean leaders say the Census undercounts their size in Michigan.Michigan also has a sizable Iraqi-American Muslim population, concentrated in Dearborn and Detroit.

In Macomb and Oakland counties, where the Iraqi Christian population is more likely to be concentrated, many Chaldeans were enthusiastic for Trump, said Joseph Kassab, founder and president of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute in West Bloomfield. Trump defeated Clinton in Macomb County by 53.6% to 42.1% while Clinton defeated Trump in Oakland County by 51.3% to 43.2%.

"We supported him big time," said Kassab, who was part of the American-MidEast Coalition for Donald Trump. "First of all, we are conservative and conservatives are Republicans. And he said he will protect the Christians."

Kassab said given the close election in Michigan, the votes of Middle Eastern Christians could have made a difference. Michigan has the highest percentage of Arab-Americans among states in the U.S., many of whom are Christian.

Iraqi-American and Lebanese-American leaders at rally in Novi for Donald Trump on Sept. 30, 2016. Second on the left is Sam Yono. To his left is Sheikh Mohammad Al Hajj Hassan (wearing white turban), John Akouri, a Lebanese-American leader who is a former city councilman in Farmington Hills. Second man on Akouri's left side is Saad Abbo (with light blue shirt) of Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce. Further on his left is Rev. Anthony Kathawa (wearing priest collar), of St. Thomas Chaldean Church in West Bloomfield. On Kathawa's far left is Joseph Kassab of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute in West Bloomfield. (Photo: Joseph Kassab)

Kassab said that under the Obama administration, the percentage of refugees who were Christian from Syria was only about 4% over the past two years. A report on the conservative media outlet CSNews.com said that more than 99% of refugees admitted into the U.S. from Syria from January through October last year were Muslim, citing statistics from the State Department Obama officials said they would not admit refugees based on religion.

Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation, said: "I think the majority (of Chaldeans) likely supported the president" in the November election. "They were frustrated with the previous administration because of their" perceived weak "response to the persecution of Christians by ISIS. They were looking for someone who would stand up for the rights of minorities."

Like other Chaldeans, Kassab is upset over the potential deportations of the Iraqis, but he doesn't blame Trump.