Nothing about the Laredo Processing Center’s physical appearance immediately suggests it is run by a multimillion-dollar, for-profit prison corporation. Located just off the highway, about 5 miles from the Rio Grande, the drab one-story building, with its chain-link fencing and razor wire, is sandwiched between Ruben’s Paint and Body Shop and Martinez Wrecker Services.
If not for the sign outside, the immigrant detention center could easily be mistaken for a well-guarded junkyard. For the people locked inside, who sleep in open areas crammed with bodies — if they are not being held in isolation — days consist of head counts, the echoing voices of shouting guards, and a lot of waiting. If you’re lucky, you have the money to make short calls home and a loved one to pick up the phone.
For Safaa Al Shakarchi, this was life for more than a year. Along with his wife, Zinah, and their two small children — 2-year-old Sidrah and 6-year-old Yousif — Safaa crossed the bridge linking Reynosa, Mexico, to McAllen, Texas, on January 14, 2017. Nearly six months had passed since the family was expelled from their adopted home in the United Arab Emirates. Zinah and Safaa had been building a life in the Gulf nation since 2009, when a militia commander in Baghdad shot Zinah and murdered her colleague, prompting her to flee Iraq.
In the months that followed the expulsion, the family’s unwelcome odyssey brought them to six countries, through multiple times zones, and across numerous borders. They endured detention at the hands of Mexican authorities, including officials who beat Safaa as his children watched, and navigated some of the most treacherous cartel-controlled territory in the Western Hemisphere.
It was not the life they had planned, but the family was at the mercy of forces beyond their control. Passports in hand, the Shakarchis presented themselves before U.S. immigration officials in Texas. Invoking a right enshrined in both U.S. and international law, they applied for asylum. While his wife and children were eventually permitted to enter the country to begin the asylum process, Safaa was not. After a long and difficult experience, he ultimately found himself locked up in Laredo, accused of no crime, with deportation orders but no country willing to accept him.
We met in a harshly lit, depressing waiting room furnished with plastic furniture, accessed via a darkened hallway. The walls were painted a yellowish beige and featured Corrections Corporation of America promotional posters highlighting the “CCA Way” and posters urging detainees to report sexual abuse.
There was nobody else in the room when the lock on the heavy metal door clicked. A short guard in a shabby, two-tone blue uniform, carrying a set of jingling keys and a squawking radio, pushed it open and Safaa walked in. Of medium height and build, dressed in a dark blue prison jumpsuit with salt-and-pepper hair, he stood tall as he entered the visiting area, moving briskly over the tile floor.
When we first spoke by phone, Safaa was in the midst of his second hunger strike, part of an effort to force the U.S. government to resolve his case. He told me that he had lost 22 pounds and that his guards had forcibly placed him in isolation for his protests, in a frigid cell where air conditioning blasted over his bed. Later that night, his wife told me Safaa had started eating again. Guards had come into his cell, she said, telling him that if he did not eat, he would be sent to another facility where he would be force-fed.
Safaa took his seat across from me, folded his hands on the plastic table, and smiled politely. Physically, at least, he seemed to be relatively fine. But then he began to speak. His voice was so small, so depleted, that I could barely hear it. “I’m tired of crying,” Safaa said, leaning forward. No sooner had our conversation begun than the guard who had opened the door walked over to us. “Excuse me, sir,” he said to me. “Give us a minute.” Safaa looked at the guard, looked at me, then got up from the table.
The door closed behind the two men. The only sound was the radios crackling and the voices carrying down the hall where they had disappeared. Minutes later, Safaa returned. When I asked why he had been removed, he shrugged. Maybe they wanted to turn on a recording device, he suggested. Mostly, that was just the nature of being locked up — guards make decisions, give you little or no explanation, and you have to comply. “They are bad,” Safaa said. “They are very fucking bad.”
The interview was scheduled for 45 minutes. Before we began, I told Safaa that I had spoken with Zinah, that she sent her love, and that she wanted him to be strong. He winced at the mention of his family. We went over, again, the chronology of events that landed him Laredo. He showed me the folder where he kept the documents he had gathered along the way, a sparse collection of government papers that did little to convey what his family had been through.
As we spoke, Safaa talked again and again of the dehumanizing nature of his confinement. “I want them to respect me. I’m a human. I have kids,” he said. In conversations on the phone, Yousif, who is now 7, would ask his father why he wouldn’t come home, and if it was because he didn’t love him anymore. “What do I tell him?” Safaa asked.
More than anything, Safaa explained, he wanted to go home and do the things dads do. “I have to take him to the mall,” he said of his little boy. “I have to sit on the floor and play with him.” Those moments are important, Safaa stressed, and he was missing out on all of them.
For Safaa, the reason behind his continued detention was plain to see. The guards, the facility itself, all of it was about turning a profit. “They keep us here for business,” Safaa said. He said it was a scheme unparalleled in its cruel design, calling it the “first dirty business in the world.”
The door to the visiting room opened and the guard informed us that we had just a few minutes remaining. As we were packing up, I noticed a piece of paper colored red, white, and blue poking out of Safaa’s breast pocket. It was his prison identification document. He had colored it like an American flag. “Because really, I love America,” Safaa said, smiling. At the same time, he added, “America kill me.”
The subject line of the email read: “Urgent need help please.”
Zinah Al Shakarchi sent it to the Intercept tips address at 5:30 a.m. on January 7. She described how her husband was in detention, on hunger strike, and how she had reached out to every legal organization she could find to no avail. She described how her young son was in a “bad psychic condition,” crying all the time and trying to hurt himself.
“He think if he will hurt himself, his father will come to see him,” she wrote.
When we first spoke two days later, Zinah described how her family had ended up in their situation. In the weeks that followed, we spoke frequently as Zinah navigated the complexities of U.S. immigration law. Throughout the process, she provided every piece of paper she could find to corroborate her family’s account, including government records from Mexico, the United States, and Canada, where she and her two young children are currently living.
The narrative that emerged from those conversations and documents reveals how a man who has never been accused, charged, or convicted of a crime in the U.S. nonetheless found himself in indefinite detention on American soil — and the remarkable lengths his family went to in order to get him back.
The story begins more than eight years ago, in Baghdad.
As part of a quality-control team with the Ministry of Trade, Zinah inspected food coming into the country before it was transferred to local retailers. In June 2009, she was inspecting a container of sugar when she detected the smell of gasoline. She informed her manager that the shipment could not be approved.
While her decision might seem straightforward enough, little in Baghdad, by that time, was that simple. In the years since the U.S. invasion, an array of armed groups had filled the power vacuum left by Saddam Hussein, grappling for money and territorial control. Later that day, fighters linked to the Jaysh al-Mahdi militia showed up at Zinah’s receiving area demanding that she let the sugar shipment through. The fighters shouted, pointing out to Zinah that she was a woman. Zinah was unfazed. The receiving area was her domain, and if she said a shipment wasn’t going through, it wasn’t going through. She yelled back, telling the fighters to leave.
The commander told Zinah that she would suffer the rest of her life for the decision she made that day. “You will see, crazy woman,” he said.
That afternoon, as Zinah was leaving work, the militia made good on its threat. At first, she said, she didn’t feel the gunshot. Then she noticed the blood pumping from her right arm. The wound was shallow, and Zinah managed to flee the scene and make it to a hospital. The terror, however, had not subsided. When she returned to the office two days later to check in with friends and colleagues, Zinah encountered the distressed father of one her co-workers — his daughter, a woman named Jenan, had not returned from work the previous day.
Jenan had been kidnapped from the receiving area the day after Zinah’s confrontation with the militia. Her body, bearing evidence of torture, was found in a garbage bin the following day. In the aftermath of the murder, Zinah said her manager encouraged her to take an extended leave of absence, reminding her that she was an unmarried virgin, and that the men she was up against were capable of anything.
Hiding out and nursing her injury, Zinah was visited by her second cousin Safaa. For six years, Safaa had been living in the UAE, and like Zinah, his life had been touched by violence. In 2003, after a series of clashes with powerful figures in the Baath party, Safaa said he had helped prevent the kidnapping of a Christian neighbor’s daughters by Saddam’s sadistic son Uday. He soon fled the country.
In 2006, while Safaa was in the UAE, Iraqi militants kidnapped his first wife, who was an employee with the Ministry of Defense and the daughter of an Iraqi general working with U.S. forces at the time. She escaped her captors by throwing herself out of a moving vehicle. Safaa said the brush with death left the mother of his first three children with long-lasting psychological scars. In 2009, she asked for a divorce and subsequently moved to the U.S. with the children.
During his visit in Baghdad, Safaa listened as Zinah explained what had happened with the sugar shipment. When he returned home that night, he found himself unable to sleep. His mind turned to his ex-wife, what she had endured, and the toll it had taken. Zinah would not stand down, he reasoned, no matter the threat. Unfortunately, neither would the militia. When Safaa awoke the next morning, he made a decision. He called his office in Abu Dhabi and said he needed a few more days in Baghdad. He then headed back to Zinah’s home and asked her to marry him.
Zinah was surprised. She asked Safaa if he was asking because he was afraid for her. No, he said, it was because she was a brave woman. Zinah liked the answer. A week later, the pair were married at Zinah’s home, her arm still bandaged, and soon after, they left to start a life together in the Emirates.
“It’s a love story,” Zinah told me, quietly laughing as she remembered those early days — nothing like the hell the family was living through now.
The years that followed were happy and stable, Zinah said. Safaa had a solid job as a maintenance manager in Abu Dhabi with some 300 employees under his supervision. Zinah eventually found work as a medical lab technician.
Once or twice a year, Zinah would return to Iraq to renew her leave from work. Each time, it seemed the situation on the ground had only gotten worse. During one visit, Zinah came home to find her “friends were disappearing and the honest people were being killed.” When she arranged plans for a visit in 2013, a friend informed her that the militia commander she confronted had only grown in power — and he had not forgotten the woman who yelled at him in front of his men.
Safaa, too, experienced his share of troubles in visits to Iraq, including a 2012 run-in with al Hakeem militia members that led to a beating and death threats. When Safaa returned the following year, those threats persisted. He was told that if he ever returned, he would be killed.
In February 2016, the Shakarchis planned a 20-day visit to their home country. Safaa’s sister was getting married, and skipping her ceremony was out of the question. Four days after arriving in Iraq, Safaa walked outside to find an envelope on his car. Inside was a bullet. The message was clear: Leave Iraq now, or die.
The family flew out the next day. After so many weeks preparing for the wedding, they didn’t even have the time to say goodbye to their family and friends. It was the last time the family set foot in Iraq.
Leaving forever was difficult, but life was good in the UAE. Then, in the summer of 2016, everything came crashing down.
It was the holy month of Ramadan and the Shakarchis were five minutes away from breaking their fast when the phone rang. The voice on the other end of the line belonged to an official from the Criminal Investigation Department in Abu Dhabi. They wanted Safaa to come to their office, with his passport.
The call wasn’t exactly a surprise. The Shakarchis are Shia, and in recent years, the UAE has systematically expelled thousands of Shia Muslims from numerous countries — including Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. During his 13 years in the UAE, Safaa had done what he could to ward off potential displacement. He stopped going to the mosque and bought alcohol with his credit card in hopes of sending a message to the UAE’s formidable surveillance state that he was not religious. All that mattered to him, he later said, was his family, his job, and “fishing sometime in the sea in the end of the week.”
Safaa knew he was fighting an uphill battle. Three years earlier, his brother had been expelled from the UAE, so when Safaa visited the CID office, he left his passport behind. The office canceled Safaa’s visa electronically nonetheless, invalidating the family’s legal status in the country. They were given 24 hours to leave. The timing was terrible. Sidrah was in the hospital at the time, suffering from a severe asthma attack. According to the Shakarchis, the doctor overseeing Sidrah’s care pushed back on the expulsion. Then the doctor herself got a phone call from the government: If she didn’t release the girl, she would be expelled as well.
Forced to pay a fine for their delayed departure, Safaa and Zinah had no idea what to do. Iraq was obviously a no-go. Not only were there pre-existing threats, but just days before the family was expelled, the Islamic State launched a massive, coordinated bomb attack in Safaa’s old neighborhood — hundreds of people were killed. Ultimately, the family decided to fly to Georgia, in Eastern Europe, where as Iraqi citizens they could stay for 30 days. After nearly three weeks, the Shakarchis flew to Malaysia, which was also offering 30-day stays for Iraqis from the Gulf. From Malaysia, they flew to Japan, and from there, to Mexico City, where they had valid tourist visas. The Shakarchis landed in Mexico City on August 28, 2016.
Immediately after their plane touched down, Zinah and Safaa said, Mexican immigration officials confiscated their phones and passports, telling them they could not enter the country because Safaa had previously applied for a U.S. visa. The family protested, asking why, if they were not permitted to enter the country, had the government granted them tourist visas? For six days, they waited in the airport. All the while, 3-year-old Sidrah, who had been pulled out of her medical treatment early, became increasingly ill.
During their search of the Shakarchis’ belongings, the Mexican officials had failed to uncover a cellphone tucked away in a bag that contained Sidrah’s diapers and baby supplies. Safaa used the phone to snap a series of photos of the room where they were being held. Connecting to airport Wi-Fi, Zinah sent the photos to her brother, who in turn got the images to an Iraqi consular official in Mexico City, who began asking questions of his Mexican counterparts.
That night, Mexican authorities approached Safaa, demanding that he turn over the phone and explaining that he needed to come with them. It was nearly midnight and Safaa was afraid — he’d heard about kidnappings in Mexico and people who disappeared and never came back. He refused to go. The officials punched him and kicked him as his children looked on. The beating aggravated an old back injury, leaving Safaa paralyzed with pain on the airport floor.
A doctor was called to the scene, Safaa was given an injection, and the family was relocated to an off-site immigration detention center in Mexico City, where they remained for nearly two weeks, until the arrival of a group of English-speaking human rights workers. Throughout the ordeal, Zinah had pleaded with Mexican officials, telling them her daughter’s asthma was worsening and that she needed medical care.
The human rights workers agreed the Shakarchis’ detention was unlawful, and that Sidrah urgently needed medical attention. The following day, they returned with a doctor and a lawyer. The Shakarchis were told that if they signed paperwork applying for refugee status with Mexico’s Commission for Refugee Assistance, known as COMAR, they could be released. They did so and were soon moved to a facility run by a resettlement organization in Mexico City.
In the four months that followed, the family was provided temporary shelter by the organization as they applied for asylum in Mexico. Without authorization to work, Safaa and Zinah became desperate. In November, the family received a letter from Mexican immigration authorities, written in Spanish and laden with legal jargon, indicating that while COMAR considered them refugees, their petition to regularize their immigration status on the basis of family bonds was inadmissible. They had until early January to figure out what to do. Homelessness in Mexico was not an option, so they decided to fly north, to the city of Reynosa.
Situated across the border from Texas, in the state of Tamaulipas, Reynosa is among the most dangerous cities in Mexico, a place where kidnappings for ransom are common, organized crime reigns, and murders go unsolved. The Shakarchis were aware of the risks they faced when they landed at the airport on January 14, 2017. They grabbed a taxi and asked the driver to take them straight to the U.S. port of entry. Two hundred pesos, he said. The family agreed. Pulling up to the bridge, the driver informed Safaa that the fee would actually be $200 — about 20 times the initial price.
It was either that, the driver said, or “I’ll take you to someone else.” Terrified, Safaa paid the money and the family began their walk to the border.
All through 2016, as the Shakarchi family searched for a place to live, a storm of anti-immigrant sentiment was swirling around the world. In the U.S., the movement was embodied by Donald Trump’s successful presidential bid. Trump’s vows to restore law and order were a hit with the people tasked with securing the border and maintaining the nation’s sprawling immigration enforcement apparatus. Ironically, they also appeared to embolden some potentially unlawful activity. A month after his election, the Washington Post reported a dramatic rise in asylum-seekers turned away at the southern border without cause — those claims were later amplified in multiple human rights reports and are now the subject of a major class-action lawsuit.
This was the political context Safaa, Zinah, and their children were walking into as they crossed the bridge into McAllen. As it happened, though, they weren’t turned away at the border. Instead, Safaa ultimately landed at the Laredo Processing Center. Zinah and the kids, meanwhile, were placed in the South Texas Family Residential Center, a behemoth facility in Dilley, Texas, set up by the Obama administration to house mothers and children during a surge of Central Americans to the U.S. Both facilities are operated by CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s second-largest private prison corporation.
When a person comes to the U.S. seeking asylum, the first step in the process generally involves a conversation with a Customs and Border Protection officer, who will ask the individual if they fear being returned to their home country. If the answer is yes, the individual will then receive a credible fear interview. Typically administered by an asylum officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the interview is intended to more concretely determine whether a person has a credible fear of being persecuted or tortured upon return to their home country. If the individual passes that interview, the case will then go before a judge, who will determine whether or not to grant asylum.
The duration of the asylum process can vary, and in the past, asylum-seekers were often released as their cases moved through the system. Under Trump, however, the number of asylum-seekers granted parole has fallen dramatically.
The Shakarchis both passed their credible fear interviews. While Zinah had no complaints about the conditions at the center in Dilley, detention was difficult. It took time just to figure out where Safaa was being held. When she finally reached him by telephone, she was in tears. “Just be patient,” Safaa said, telling his wife they would be reunited soon.
Zinah and the children were released on parole after 12 days in detention, their case still open. They traveled to Dallas, where Safaa’s brother lives. He helped them find a cheap apartment and a car to get around. Based on conversations with U.S. officials at the border, Zinah expected her husband would be a couple of weeks behind her in his release.
Yet those weeks turned into months. The little news Zinah received about Safaa’s situation was not good. According to the family, Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied Safaa parole in April because he could not prove that he was not a flight risk. An ICE supervisor also denied a $25,000 bond recommendation from one of his subordinates, the family says, because of Safaa’s nationality and religion.
On July 26, 2017, after more than seven months in detention, Safaa had his asylum hearing before an immigration judge. In years past, Laredo detainees would have their immigration hearings via teleconference with a judge in San Antonio. That changed following Trump’s inauguration. Under the new administration, a surge of judges was sent to the border in one- to two-week stints. Laredo set up face-to-face immigration hearings, overseen by a security guard, in March.
The increased number of judges was designed to churn through the tide of purportedly dangerous migrants streaming across the border that Trump had warned about on the campaign trail. But after Trump was elected, Border Patrol apprehensions, the metric the government uses to gauge the flow of illegal border crossings, dropped to levels not seen since the 1970s, leaving so-called detail judges in many courts with little to do.
In October, while Safaa was still in detention, a pair of reporters from the Marshall Project and “This American Life” visited the court and found the disarray there was beyond anything else seen in the wake of Trump’s surge in judges. The joint report, published in January, also highlighted the work of Paola Marielle Tostado, a 25-year-old immigration attorney, two years out of law school, who was described as “a real Texas highway rider lawyer from Brownsville” who “announced her presence with a scarlet dress and 4-inch spike heels.”
The Shakarchis hired Tostado to represent Safaa. Their aim was asylum and preventing Safaa’s deportation to Iraq. It did not go well.
The detail judge in Safaa’s hearing was Glen R. Baker. Appointed by the Obama administration in 2014, Baker normally presides over the Kansas City immigration court. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a research center at Syracuse University, from 2012 through 2017, Baker had an asylum denial rate of 71.3 percent, placing him above the national average of 52.8 percent.
According to audio obtained by The Intercept, the hearing was initially attended by Safaa, Tostado, Baker, and a guard watching over the proceedings. The hearing was also facilitated by an Arabic translator who teleconferenced in. The addition of the translator, whose dialect was Egyptian, seemed to complicate the conversation, rather than improve it. The audio connection was poor, and after a garbled translation of one of his answers about life under Saddam Hussein, Safaa volunteered to answer questions in his limited English.
“If I’m not understand English, they can translate,” Safaa said. Baker agreed.
Geographically, Safaa’s story placed him apart from the asylum cases Baker normally handles. In recent years, TRAC data shows, just 1.2 percent of asylum-seekers appearing before Baker came from a Middle Eastern country. “Is Abu Dhabi a city or a country?” Baker asked Safaa. It is the capital, Safaa replied.
Safaa answered a series of questions from Tostado, explaining the 14-year saga that brought him from Baghdad to Laredo. In addition to Safaa’s repeated visits to Iraq, Baker homed in on a line of questioning related to the Shakarchis’ time in Mexico. Tostado had noted that while they were in Mexico, the family had applied for asylum and been granted refugee status. “In Mexico, when you’re a refugee, you cannot work,” she explained, pointing to Mexican documents the Shakarchis had received, “so they applied for work authorization and that was denied.”
By that point, a lawyer for the government, ICE attorney Emmanuel Garcia, had arrived. Garcia agreed the materials in question showed that the family had been approved as refugees, and that “the Mexican government was already telling them, ‘You have refugee status. If you want to obtain a different legal status in this country, all you have to do is apply for humanitarian reasons.’” The problem, he speculated, was “that whatever they were applying was maybe perhaps not the right application or not the correct type of relief that they should have sought from the government.”
For Baker, the point was critical. If the Shakarchis were granted status in another country, then they were barred from asylum in the U.S. Safaa and Tostado argued that the family did file for an adjustment in their status that would allow them to work in Mexico. Safaa said the process was supposed to take two weeks, but he waited two months and heard nothing. Eventually, it got to the point where the family could no longer stay in the shelter, nor could they work and feed their children, thus prompting them to make the trip to the U.S.
None of that mattered in the view of the court. Safaa’s opportunity for asylum collapsed, leaving a withholding of removal to Iraq as his only hope for a positive outcome.
After a brutal cross-examination by the ICE attorney, during which Safaa appeared unable to follow many of the questions, Baker announced his decision, which was about as far from the Shakarchis’ hopes as it could get. He dismissed Safaa’s asylum claim on account of the family’s status in Mexico and his conclusion that Safaa did not fit into any of the five protected groups that qualify for asylum under U.S. law. Similarly, he concluded, the United Nations convention against torture did not apply in Safaa’s case. “Now, your wife may have a claim, I don’t think she has a claim for asylum because she was granted relief in Mexico, but she may have a claim for withholding of removal,” he told Safaa.
Critically, Baker added, “withholding of removal applications are singular. She has her application, you have yours, and if she is granted relief, it doesn’t help your case.” The judge ordered Safaa to be deported to either Mexico or Iraq. He informed the family that they had the right to appeal but added that the process would likely mean at least five more months in detention. “I do not have authority to let you out in the meantime, while you wait for your appeal to be decided, because you’re classified as an arriving alien,” he said.
“The immigration law of the United States does not encompass all treatment that society regards as unfair, unjust, or even unlawful or unconstitutional,” Baker went on to say. “I know this isn’t the outcome that you were hoping for, but I’ve done my best to apply the law to your case, and I believe it’s the correct decision”
“Good luck to you, sir,” the judge told Safaa. “Good luck to you, ma’am,” he said to Zinah. “That’s all for today.”
Safaa was returned to detention. On August 13, the Shakarchis say they submitted a request to ICE for an appeal document and other materials related to his case. On August 25, the day the appeal needed to be filed, ICE responded, the family says, asking what documents Safaa required.
In the end, no appeal was filed.
It seemed there was nowhere in the world the Shakarchis could be together, and that the most powerful government on the planet was bent on keeping it that way.
Day after day, Safaa was tormented by the idea that he would be sent to a war zone, a place he hadn’t lived for more than a decade, that he wouldn’t be able to see his children grow up, and that it was all because he came to the U.S. looking for help. To him, it felt like an unfathomably cruel punishment for an eminently understandable act.
Safaa bonded with the men in his hall, who came from all over the world. He thought a lot about private prisons, calculating how much money the whole operation must be making. But mostly, he slept. It was the only way to turn off the world around him. As time went on, his thoughts grew darker. Sitting across the table in the Laredo detention center, he told me he had no doubt that he would be killed if he were sent back to Iraq. But even that, he said, would be preferable to the unending limbo he had found himself in.
The meetings with ICE were particularly difficult, Safaa said, full of raised expectations and dashed hopes. “They just lie, lie, lie,” he said.
With their attorney gone and their savings dwindling, Zinah took it upon herself to become Safaa’s primary advocate and made understanding his options her full-time job — this on top of raising two young children on her own in a country she did not know.
From outside the detention center walls, she struggled with the faceless bureaucrats who kept Safaa locked up. She would call his deportation officer over and over, pressing him to find a resolution in the case. She contacted every legal organization she could find. It seemed nobody had the time or the resources to help. In a country where the immigration court backlog includes more than 650,000 cases, it’s not difficult to understand why.
Zinah read about a lawsuit known as Hamama v. Adducci that seemed promising at first. The case has its roots in Trump’s ban on travelers coming to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority nations, which initially included Iraq. In years past, the U.S. government struggled to deport people to Iraq, in part because of the country’s refusal to issue the necessary travel documents. That changed with the travel ban.
Following negotiations with the administration, the Iraqi government agreed in March to begin accepting deported citizens in exchange for removal from Trump’s list. Three months later, ICE launched a series of operations targeting Iraqis with prior removal orders. A total of 234 Iraqis were arrested; more than 1,210 others became official targets for deportation.
The Iraqis in ICE’s crosshairs had, for the most part, been living in the U.S. for years under government supervision and included a significant number of Iraqi Christians. The sweeps prompted a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, with the organization arguing its clients be permitted to have their cases heard before an immigration judge, on the grounds that their swift deportation would expose them to persecution, torture, and possible death upon their return to Iraq.
Hamama v. Adducci was filed in Michigan because much of ICE’s enforcement efforts were concentrated there. The case took on national significance in July, when U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith issued a nationwide stay of removal temporarily protecting Iraqis swept up in ICE’s operations. According to Margo Schlanger, a former Department of Homeland Security chief of civil rights and civil liberties who is now a professor at University of Michigan Law School and an attorney on the Hamama suit, Safaa just barely missed the deadline to be included in the class-action suit.
Still, she added, his case could raise important questions in the ongoing litigation.
Both the Shakarchis and Tostado said ICE’s efforts to deport Safaa to Iraq were hampered by Iraq’s refusal to accept him. The reason why is unclear. Despite receiving a detailed list of questions, the only comment ICE would make to me about Safaa’s case was to confirm that he was being detained. The Iraqi embassy did not respond to repeated requests for clarification; whether ICE made any headway in negotiations with Mexican government is similarly uncertain. In recent filings in the Hamama case, however, government witnesses argued that ICE’s “only impediment” to deporting people to Iraq was Goldsmith’s current injunction. Safaa was not protected by the injunction, meaning that if the government’s representations to the court were accurate, ICE should have had no trouble deporting him, but that didn’t happen.
Schlanger said Safaa’s case speaks to a deeper murkiness around the ICE-Iraq relationship and the “breakthrough” deal the administration reached to remove Iraq from Trump’s list. “The agreement that they’re talking about, this breakthrough, whenever we try to pin it down, the government refuses to disclose any of the terms,” Schlanger said. “We don’t really know who they can remove, how many they can remove, under what conditions they can remove them — we just don’t know.”
That Safaa’s case could prompt changes or new disclosures in the Hamama litigation was of little use to Zinah. The lawsuit offered no protections for Safaa, and that was all that mattered to her.
Feeling she had exhausted all of her options, Zinah decided to take the children to Canada. She hoped doing so might provide the Americans with a viable location for Safaa’s deportation, but it also meant abandoning her open asylum case in the U.S. along the way.
She booked a flight to Boston, and from there she and the kids traveled to Plattsburgh, New York. Following a route that’s become popular among asylum-seekers since Trump’s inauguration, Zinah and the children crossed the border into Quebec on August 14 and applied for asylum.
The family first stayed in a cluster of tents shared with other asylum-seekers, many of them Haitians, who had also left the U.S. Shortly after arriving, Zinah suffered an asthma attack and was hospitalized. The family was eventually moved into a shelter and later an apartment. They were provided a lawyer and financial assistance. Yousif was enrolled in school and Sidrah in day care.
In October, a week before her court hearing on her asylum case, Zinah learned that her file had been transferred to Toronto. Once again, she packed up the kids. This time, they landed in Mississauga, a Toronto suburb. With the help of an Arabic Facebook group, made up of many similarly displaced Iraqis, Zinah found a basement apartment and a car to drive. In general, Zinah said, the Canadians seemed more accommodating and friendly than their American counterparts. “It is more kind,” she said.
A fan of American movies, Zinah once told me her life felt like one, albeit a more agonizing and never-ending film than she’d ever care to see. For her, the whole ordeal simply did not make sense. Safaa had done nothing wrong, she would tell me, and yet he was being punished so severely. “It’s not human,” she said. “It’s not American.”
On at least the second point, Zinah seemed somewhat mistaken.
The Shakarchis lay much of the blame for what happened on Tostado, their former attorney, for failing to mount a vigorous defense and disappearing on them once Safaa’s hearing was through. “She kill me,” Safaa said of her representation. “She just take the money and give me deportation and gone,” he said. “I call, call, call her and she not answer.”
In a phone call in January, Tostado told me she met with Safaa “more than 10 times” before his hearing, though she declined to go into much detail about the case. Consistent with the Shakarchis’ claims that she was unresponsive, Tostado’s office did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls for further comment and clarifications following that initial conversation.
It was true that Tostado appeared outmatched by ICE’s more experienced attorney, at least in the recordings that I obtained. It was also true that she seemed to vanish when the family was in desperate need of ongoing representation. But to pin the entire outcome on her would be to miss the bigger picture of what families like the Shakarchis are up against, and to see Safaa’s case as something inconsistent with U.S. practices would be a mistake.
Roughly 70 percent of ICE’s detention facilities are run by private companies. By law, the agency is required to meet a quota of 34,000 detention beds filled each day. Under Trump, ICE has sought to bump that number up to 51,000 — a more than tenfold increase from the roughly 5,000 immigrants detained daily in 1994. Unfortunately for families like the Shakarchis, the system that funnels people into these centers is functional only in the sense that it continues to persist. It is a system in which people routinely wait months, or even years, before learning whether they will be able to resume their lives again, and where legal representation is not a given. As Baker, the judge, pointed out, it is not a system concerned with the messy and often unfair realities of human lives. It is a system of laws and, as it turns out, the laws in the U.S. are quite harsh. Often, the best a family can hope for is a bit of luck.
One day, after a series of phone calls failed to connect her with a live human being, Zinah decided she had had enough. She wrote an email to Safaa’s deportation officer. Zoo animals were given better treatment than her family had received, she told him. To Zinah’s surprise, when she called the detention center later that day, ICE told her that it was giving the Iraqi embassy one more week to make a determination. If the embassy failed to do so, there was a chance Safaa would be released.
Zinah’s hopes were soaring when, two days later, Safaa received an envelope from the Executive Office of Immigration Review, or EOIR, the branch of the Justice Department that oversees the nation’s immigration courts. Obtaining a full record of Safaa’s hearing had become a focus for both of us. The Shakarchis hoped it would show that their case was mishandled. I wanted to confirm exactly what was said in the proceeding, though I had my doubts about whether it would make a difference in Safaa’s situation. We both filed freedom of information requests with the EOIR.
After weeks of waiting, Safaa opened the envelope only to find a set of papers the family already had. For Zinah, it was another demoralizing blow. The horror movie of their lives seemed to be rolling on. Days later, she texted to see if there was any news on my efforts to obtain the file. There wasn’t, but before I could reply, another message from Zinah came through.
“They let Safaa go,” it read.
It was gray, overcast, and dribbling rain when Safaa landed in New York City. He wore a black fleece, a puffy winter coat, and blue jeans. His luggage was minimal, just a rolling suitcase and a small bag. The same things he carried when he, Zinah, and the kids crossed the Mexican border into the U.S. more than one year ago.
Standing outside LaGuardia Airport waiting for a taxi, Safaa spoke on his cellphone. Earlier in the day, Zinah had connected with a network of American activists working along the U.S. border with Canada, who had offered to put Safaa in touch with a driver he could trust once he got into town. The driver was now on the other end of the line. Safaa explained that he would be arriving late. It didn’t matter, the driver said, whatever time you get in, I’ll be there. Just call.
The decision had come suddenly and without explanation, Safaa explained, as we settled into a cab bound for the bus station.
On the morning of February 20, he was told that his case manager wanted to speak to him. He changed clothes and met with the manager, who informed him that ICE had requested a meeting. “What do they want?” Safaa asked. “I don’t know,” his case manager replied. The conversation with ICE began with the normal pleasantries — “How are you?” “How’s your health?” — then, Safaa recalled, the officials told him, “We have a surprise for you.”
Safaa’s first response to the news that he was being released was denial. He had lost hope in the days leading up to the meeting. “I will not go from this place,” he had told himself. “I will die here.” He was trying to learn to forget the outside world. “Excuse me, sir. I don’t want any more lie,” Safaa told the officials. “I’m tired.” It was no lie, the officials explained. Safaa broke down. “I couldn’t catch myself,” he said.
At that point, things moved quickly. Over the next two hours, Safaa packed his belongings and said goodbye to the men he had befriended inside. It had been “one year, one month, one week exactly.” During that time, he and a handful of others had become the longest-running detainees in Laredo. There was a perception that they would never be let out.
Once word spread among the 76 other detainees that he was leaving, Safaa said, there was an explosion of cheering, laughter, and hugs. “Inside, we are like family,” he said. Any time anyone got out, even if it was through deportation, there was a sense of relief and celebration. The reason, he explained, is because to enter the detention center is to see one’s life come to a stop. When they go out, Safaa said, “it starts again.”
Safaa was given a bus ticket to Dallas, where his brother lives. He spent the following two days in tearful phone conversations with family members across the world, confirming that, yes, in fact, he was free. The terms of his release were laid out in a two-page DHS “Order of Supervision” form. The document explained that, because he had not been deported in the time prescribed by the law, he was being released under the condition that he attended routine ICE check-ins. It added that he could not leave the state of Texas for more than 48 hours without providing notification to ICE.
When Safaa arrived in Dallas, his older brother, whom he considers a father figure, implored him to stay longer. It had been years since they had seen each other. But for Safaa, the road ahead was clear. “I want to be with my wife and my kids,” he told me as the cab pulled out of the airport. “I want to be with my kids as a father; this is my last job in the life.”
Safaa was beaming as the taxi made its way into Manhattan, under the shadow of high-rise buildings disappearing into the storm clouds above. “Am I dreaming?” he asked. He seemed an entirely different person from the man I met in Laredo. He couldn’t stop grinning. His voice had returned. Passing through the Queens Midtown tunnel, Safaa marveled at his wife’s resiliency and tenacity over the last year. “She work like a lawyer,” he said, a broad smile spreading across his face. “She knows everything.”
Back in the Emirates, Safaa explained, Zinah didn’t pump gas into the car. Now, Safaa said, she could not only refuel a vehicle, she could drive it in the snow and navigate the complexities of immigration law in multiple countries. “Now, really, she knows many things,” Safaa said. “God made me far away from her to make her stronger in life,” he added with a laugh.
The plan Safaa and Zinah concocted was not without risk. There were recent reports of Border Patrol agents stepping up searches on northbound buses and trains. Safaa’s intentions could not be shaken though. He approached the bus kiosk in Manhattan. One way or round trip? the attendant asked.
“One way,” Safaa replied.
His destination was Plattsburgh, the same border city that Zinah and the children had passed through months earlier. If he was nervous about the voyage ahead, he wouldn’t admit it, and he certainly wouldn’t show it. Standing outside the bus terminal, the lights of Midtown coloring his face, Safaa pulled out a cigarette and placed it between his lips. He tilted his head back with a grin. “One year, one month, one week,” he said. “No cigarette.”
Hundreds of miles away, in Mississauga, Zinah waited anxiously.
“I can’t believe it!” she had exclaimed over the phone on the day Safaa was released. “He’s in the bus station,” she said. “My heart right now is pumping too much.” She called it “the happiest day in all of my life.”
Safaa delivered the news of his release by video call from the bus and spoke with his children, but Zinah had decided not to tell them of the Canada plan. They had already been through so much, she couldn’t bear disappointing them again. And so Zinah waited and prayed. She had long planned to renew their wedding vows if ever they were reunited. Now, it seemed, that day was coming.
It was well after dark when Safaa made it out of the U.S. He was surrounded by other migrants, many of them Africans, also seeking sanctuary in Canada. As is customary on the border, Canadian officials had informed Safaa that if he crossed the line, he would be in violation of Canadian law and arrested. “I not have another choice,” Safaa said, and crossed. “Welcome,” he was told.
“My heart is dancing,” Zinah wrote in a text message early the next morning. Safaa had made it to Quebec, she explained, and would get to Mississauga in the wee hours of the morning. What Zinah didn’t know was that Safaa was already in a cab, making his way to her as fast as he could. For Zinah, the hours were dragging like never before. “Time is not moving,” she said in a text. Then, at 12:43 a.m., she sent a series of photos. The first was Zinah sliding a wedding band onto Safaa’s finger. The second was Zinah resting her head on Safaa’s chest. The final photo, a glowing image of Safaa holding Sidrah and Yousif in his arms, included a caption. “Finally,” it said. “We did it.”