Rita Aldaoud was in still in bed around 7 a.m. in early June when a strange number from Iraq rang her phone. Born and raised in Michigan, she ignored it, assuming that it was a foreign robocall. But after receiving two more calls from the same number, she finally picked up.
It was Iraqi immigration agent, calling from the Shi’ite-controlled city of Najaf in southern Iraq. The agent was with Aldaoud’s older brother, Jimmy Aldaoud, whom the agent said had just been deported by U.S. immigration authorities. Rita Aldaoud was shocked. Their now-deceased parents fled Iraq as refugees decades before, but Jimmy had never even visited the country.
The agent was panicked, Rita Aldaoud says, because he had learned that her brother was a member of the Chaldean Christian minority, and would be in danger in Najaf.
“He said, ‘I don’t know what to do. If I let him out on the streets they will kill him,’” Rita Aldaoud tells TIME. The agent handed the phone to Jimmy, whom she says cried as he explained what had happened.
The situation was even more dire because Jimmy also had severe mental health issues, including paranoid schizophrenia, which had contributed to him being homeless at the time of his deportation. Jimmy had also been a diabetic since childhood, and had only been given one bag of insulin by immigration authorities, Rita Aldaoud says.
About two months later, Jimmy was dead at the age of 41 — apparently because he had been unable to secure more insulin, according to his sister.
Immigration experts say that vulnerable people are more likely to be deported since the Trump administration revoked a crucial Obama-era immigration policy, which encouraged immigration judges to weigh in humanitarian consideration when considering whether to deport immigrants.
Bradley Jenkins, a federal litigation attorney for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, tells TIME that the Trump administration eliminated that policy of discretion early in his presidency.
“I think what we’ve been seeing is just a hardening of the hearts of immigration authorities over the past several years,” says Jenkins. “Even if someone like Mr. Aldaoud could show with pretty grave certainty that his health would be pretty gravely at risk or that he wouldn’t be able to get adequate treatment for either physical health or mental health issues, there’s no real place to put those concerns other than the mercy of any other given administration.”
Jenkins said that he cannot speak specifically to Jimmy Aldaoud’s case, but said that many immigrants are deported to places that the U.S. otherwise acknowledges are dangerous, such as El Salvador or Honduras.
Iraq did not accept refugees from the United States until 2017, when the U.S. announced a travel ban for certain countries. After Iraq agreed to accept some deportees, the United States lifted the travel ban on Iraqi citizens. Soon afterward, the U.S. moved to deport about 1,400 Iraqis, including a number of Chaldean Christians. In 2017, President Trump also eliminated a refugee assistance program for citizens of seven countries, including Iraq.
Martin Manna, President of the Chaldean Community Foundation, says that he is concerned that the Trump White House is diverging from previous administrations toward the Chaldean Christians, a group of Eastern Rite Catholics with origins in ancient Mesopotamia and Chaldea. Manna says that Iraq has been a dangerous place for many years, especially for Christians.
“You talk about the Chaldean Christian villages even in northern Iraq — most of those areas now are governed by Iranian militias,” says Manna.
In some ways, Jimmy Aldaoud’s story is similar to many other immigrants who have been deported. He faced legal troubles, including charges for breaking into a neighbor’s garage and stealing power tools. However, Edward Bajoka, a lawyer who has been assisting the Aldaoud family, says that these issues were related to his mental illness.
“He generally led a pretty unstable lifestyle, I think it was all due to his mental health issues,” says Bajoka.
To Rita Aldaoud, Jimmy’s deportation was the opposite of what he needed.
“His being deported to Iraq was literally his death sentence. He just needed help,” she says.
Rita Aldaoud had many reasons to fear for her brother. Besides his mental health issues, Jimmy had never been to Iraq, and spoke no Arabic. He was born in Greece, a country without birthright citizenship for the children of refugees — and moved to the United States when he was about 6 months old.
Over the past week, Jimmy’s health took a turn for the worse. He started to throw up, but was too fearful to go to a hospital. Rita says that his mental health also seemed to be slipping.
“He kept saying, ‘I’d rather be in jail in America for the rest of my life, if God would just send me back,’” Rita Aldaoud says. “He died alone, in a country he’s never seen. It’s just not right.”
Rita Aldaoud says that the family is now working to have Jimmy’s body sent home, so he can receive a proper burial next to their mother.
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