Before he was deported, Jimmy Aldaoud had never stepped foot in Iraq. Born in Greece to Iraqi refugee parents, he immigrated to the United States with his family via a refugee resettlement program 40 years ago, when he was just 15 months old. He considered himself American and knew hardly anything of Iraqi society. Still, on the afternoon of June 4, he found himself wandering the arrivals terminal of Al Najaf International Airport, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, with around $50, some insulin for his diabetes, and the clothes on his back.
Aldaoud was used to getting by with little. For most of his adult life, he had experienced homelessness, working odd jobs, and stealing loose change from cars as he grappled with mental illness. But that was in the relative comfort of his hometown — for decades, he rarely strayed more than a few miles from his parents’ house in Hazel Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. He had no idea how to survive in Iraq, and he was unprepared to make a run at it; he hadn’t known his deportation would come so soon, and officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement wouldn’t let him call his family before they sent him off.
Aldaoud spoke no Arabic, had no known family in Iraq, and nobody knew he was there. Disembarking in Najaf, he was “scared,” “confused,” and acting panicked, according to an Iraqi immigration officer he encountered.
Jimmy Aldaoud’s story was intended to raise alarms about the possible human toll of ICE’s actions. Now, it’s a testament to it.
And 63 days later — this past Tuesday — he was dead.
For weeks before his death, The Intercept had been digging into Aldaoud’s story. He was one of a number of people who have been deported as a result of an ongoing ICE crackdown on Iraqi communities — a crackdown advocates say has recklessly placed deportees in danger. His mental illness, his lack of language skills and connections, and his struggle with diabetes — the likely cause of his untimely passing — made Aldaoud especially vulnerable. His story was intended to raise alarms about the possible human toll of ICE’s actions. Now, it’s a testament to it.
“He died alone,” said Mary Bolis, one of Aldaoud’s three sisters. “It’s unfair.”
For two years, the Trump administration has been trying to deport Iraqis with longstanding removal orders.
From the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 until recently, the Iraqi government — citing logistical, political, and humanitarian concerns — largely refused to repatriate its deportable nationals. Under President Barack Obama, ICE and the State Department tried on several occasions to convince Baghdad to cooperate in the deportation process, but to no avail. Shortly after taking office, the Trump administration ramped up the pressure.
It started with the travel ban. In January 2017, a week after his inauguration, President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring nationals from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. Iraq was among the seven, but team Trump quickly offered Iraqi officials an out: If they agreed to begin accepting deportees, the administration would lift the travel sanctions. That March, after a federal court struck down the first iteration of the Muslim ban, Trump signed a new one, this time with Iraq removed from the list. Then, in April, ICE successfully removed eight Iraqi-born U.S. residents and made plans to sweep up swaths of the roughly 1,400 more eligible for deportation.
In the runup to the crackdown on deportable Iraqis, Aldaoud was locked up; he was serving a short stint in Michigan’s Oakland County Jail for giving false information to a police officer, according to ICE records. While he was incarcerated, ICE placed a detainer on him, letting the jail know that agents planned to pick him up upon release. On the morning of June 8, 2017, ICE agents transferred Aldaoud to the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown. Three days later, the raids began.
That summer, ICE rounded up around 350 Iraqi immigrants in homes and businesses across the country. Michigan was the center of the action: In metro Detroit, ICE initially picked up 114 people — most of whom, like Aldaoud, were men who came to the United States as refugees decades ago but, before gaining citizenship, committed crimes that rendered them deportable.
In the summer of 2017, ICE rounded up around 350 Iraqi immigrants in homes and businesses across the country.
The Michigan detainees, including Aldaoud, were also mostly Chaldean: part of a historically persecuted Christian sect from Iraq affiliated with the Catholic Church. Since the U.S. invasion, the rise of the Islamic State, and the spread of rogue militias in Iraq, as many as 80 percent of Christians have fled the country or were killed. It’s a reality that Congress and the State Department acknowledged when they declared a “genocide” in Iraq. It’s also one that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence — for whom Chaldeans voted in large numbers in 2016 — have talked up as a pillar of their administration’s Iraq policy.
Thus, in addition to fearing the banishment of their loved ones, many members of Michigan’s Chaldean community were convinced that deportation would result in their torture or murder. As soon as ICE launched the raids, Chaldean community leaders recruited the help of large legal nonprofits, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, to sue to prevent the impending deportations — teeing up what was to become a long and hard-fought legal battle. Meanwhile, Aldaoud and 350 others like him sat in ICE detention.
According to his sisters, Aldaoud was a joy to grow up with. “He was amazing. His teachers would love him and want more of him in their classroom,” said Nagham Shamoon, his older sister. But he and their father — who suffered from alcoholism, according to the sisters — would constantly butt heads, and Aldaoud’s life took a turn for the worse when their dad threw him out of the house at the age of 16.
After getting kicked out, Aldaoud dropped out of high school and turned to drugs, according to his sisters, which began a cycle of homelessness and incarceration that would define his life for the next 25 years. In his late teens, he also started to show signs of mental illness; although it appears that he was never officially diagnosed, his sisters say that doctors told them that he fit the profile of someone experiencing bipolar schizoaffective disorder.
Getting thrown out of the house also affected Aldaoud’s immigration status. Shortly after he moved out, his mother, father, and older sister began the process of becoming U.S. citizens (his two younger sisters were born in the United States). But Aldaoud kept the “legal permanent resident” status to which all refugees resettled to the U.S. are entitled and which, under U.S. immigration law, can be revoked if one is convicted of any of a long list of crimes.
Even when they weren’t living together, Aldaoud and his father continued to fight well into Aldaoud’s 20s. The confrontations would sometimes turn physical, and Aldaoud’s dad, now deceased, would often call the cops on him. Once in 1998, then again in 2004, Aldaoud landed assault convictions. They were the first of many infractions — including obstructing a police officer, breaking and entering, larceny, marijuana possession, and disorderly conduct — that ICE would use to justify his removal.
Aldaoud’s sisters say there’s no way he would have intentionally hurt anyone: “He’d never hurt a fly — to this day would never hurt a fly,” Mary, two years his junior, told The Intercept before he died. Still, with his precarious immigration status, his convictions rendered him deportable. In 2005, he tried to head off deportation by applying for asylum. “Ive been in the United States my whole life (besides when I was one year old),” he wrote in his application. He claimed to fear “strangers over there attacking me for being an American.” But in November of that year, a judge ordered him removed from the country.
For the next 12 years, Aldaoud continued to live his life in Michigan. He was known by patrol officers to be homeless and suffering from addiction. According to police reports, he sometimes squatted in abandoned houses, and he spent most of his waking hours near the intersection of 8 Mile and John R Roads in Hazel Park, just a 3-minute drive from his parents’ home. Every few months he would get caught stealing change from unlocked cars.
He was jailed frequently, which caused him a lot of stress. Incident reports filed by corrections officers indicate that, while in county jail, Aldaoud would eat as much candy as he could get his hands on in an effort to irritate his diabetes and trigger hospitalization. He knew that, after he was sent to the hospital, jail officials would likely release him into the care of his mother. He loved and depended on his mother. In a brief call with The Intercept a month before he died, Aldaoud said that life became much harder for him when she passed away in 2015.
In July 2017, as Aldaoud approached his eighth week in ICE detention, a federal judge in Detroit issued a decision on the ACLU’s lawsuit. The ruling barred the government from deporting most eligible Iraqis until they had a chance to argue their individual cases for fear-based relief in immigration court — a huge win for Iraqi communities.
But the battle was far from over. Government lawyers promptly filed challenges, so it was unclear how much time Iraqis had to get in front of a judge before ICE would be allowed to resume its crackdown. And with a nationwide backlog of more than 1 million cases, it can take years to get a date in immigration court.
Furthermore, ICE refused to release those Iraqis it had detained while the courts were processing their claims. It wasn’t until November 2018 — nearly a year and a half after the initial raids — that a judge ordered ICE to release the final 110 Iraqis it was holding in detention, including Aldaoud.
Again, however, victory was short-lived. On the same day the federal judge had set as a deadline for ICE to release detained Iraqis, the government’s legal challenges came to fruition, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s orders. ACLU lawyers petitioned the appellate court to rehear the case, but they were denied. On April 9, 2019, ICE became free to continue its operations on Iraqis with deportation orders, regardless of whether or not they’d had a chance to argue for protections in immigration court.
Like many of the other Iraqis, he was applying for protection based on the U.S.’s status as a signatory to the Convention Against Torture.
By the time the Sixth Circuit let ICE off its leash, about 240 of the Iraqis whom the agency had detained had successfully reopened their cases, according to Margo Schlanger, a law professor at the University of Michigan on the team counsel for the ACLU’s case; Aldaoud was one of them. Christopher Schaedig, a Michigan-based civil litigation attorney, volunteered to represent Aldaoud pro bono, and he managed to secure a May 2018 hearing in immigration court. Aldaoud had a winnable case, Schaedig told The Intercept. Like many of the other Iraqis, he was applying for protection based on the U.S.’s status as a signatory to the Convention Against Torture, and Schaedig had expert testimony lined up that would attest to the persecution of Christians in Iraq.
But on the day of the hearing, the judge had to postpone proceedings after the Department of Justice lawyer trying the case realized he had prosecuted one of Aldaoud’s old criminal charges and had to recuse himself. Aldaoud became agitated, according to Schaedig and Aldaoud’s sisters. Despite the postponement having nothing to do with Schaedig’s work, Aldaoud fired him in open court and decided to proceed without representation.
It was a move Schaedig and Aldaoud’s sisters attributed to Aldaoud’s mental health troubles — and it wasn’t the first time he had pulled it. During the criminal trial for a home invasion charge in 2012, Aldaoud fired his court-appointed attorney and declared that he wished to represent himself. The court struggled with the question of whether he was competent enough, and the ordeal went all the way to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which ultimately tossed his conviction because a judge didn’t adequately explain to Aldaoud the risks of acting as one’s own lawyer.
While Aldaoud lucked out in criminal court, immigration court wasn’t nearly as amenable to his impulsiveness — not least because one isn’t legally guaranteed counsel in immigration proceedings. Without Schaedig’s representation, he lost his case for protection. He was released from ICE detention with all the other Iraqis in December 2018 with a GPS tracker, which he immediately removed, and by late May, ICE agents had arrested him again on the street.
While going through customs in Najaf Airport, Aldaoud — anxious and on the verge of breakdown — encountered an immigration officer who spoke some English. The officer asked for his passport, but Aldaoud didn’t have one. He asked Aldaoud if he spoke any Arabic; Aldaoud said that he didn’t. He asked about family or friends in the area, to which Aldaoud responded that all he had were his sisters back in the United States. So the officer, Ahmed Alboshweb, let him use his phone.
He tried calling his youngest sister, Rita Bolis, but she wouldn’t pick up. At 7:09 a.m. Michigan time, he left her a voice memo over the messaging service WhatsApp: “Rita!” he exclaimed. “I’m in Iraq! … Please, Rita, just answer the phone when you wake up.”
“Rita! I’m in Iraq! … Please, Rita, just answer the phone when you wake up.”
He then tried calling Mary, who answered. Mary spent the rest of the day on the phone trying to figure out why her brother was deported without her and her sisters’ knowing — and, more importantly, how to get him settled in safely.
That Aldaoud was in Najaf in southern Iraq, instead of Baghdad to where most U.S. deportees have been flown, was of particular concern. According to Daniel Smith, an Iraq-based human rights researcher, Najaf is a Shia stronghold in a country where mostly Shia militias have, for years and with the government’s acquiescence, persecuted ethnic and religious minorities.
It’s not as it there’s an open “pogrom” of Christians or outsiders in the south, Smith said, “but if someone does want to victimize you in some way, you’re not necessarily protected from it.” He added that it was “crazy” and “irresponsible” for ICE to send Aldaoud to Najaf.
Belkis Wille, a senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch, added that Aldaoud’s deportation to Najaf — and to Iraq in general — was especially dangerous considering that he was never given the identification documents needed to navigate the country. This has been an issue for all deportees from the U.S.; as Human Rights Watch has documented, there are checkpoints in virtually every neighborhood in Iraq. Without a way to prove one’s identity — and no family support or language skills to get out of a tight situation — deportees are highly vulnerable to arrest or detention.
It was “crazy” and “irresponsible” for ICE to send Aldaoud to Najaf.
And detention very often leads to torture, said Smith, which is “a routine tool of interrogation” and “doesn’t have to come from a place of hostility in Iraq.” (ICE did not respond to The Intercept’s repeated questions regarding why Aldaoud was sent to Najaf and why the agency isn’t ensuring that Iraqis are able to procure identity documents before their deportation.)
With these dangers in mind, a ragtag group quickly mobilized to ensure Aldaoud’s safety. His sisters contacted ACLU lawyers, who got in touch with a Baghdad-based lawyer from Heartland Alliance, an anti-poverty nonprofit, who then booked a hotel for Aldaoud in Najaf. Moved by Aldaoud’s story, Alboshweb, the immigration officer, was also eager to help, he told The Intercept in an interview in mid-July. “Don’t worry, I’m with you. I’m security man. Don’t worry,” he said he told him. He gave him some food and a cigarette and helped him check into his hotel room.
Heartland Alliance also contacted Samir Kada, a Michigan Chaldean who had to leave his wife and eight kids behind when he was deported in November 2018. Unlike most other deportees, Kada has family connections in Baghdad, and he had been able to obtain identity documents for himself a few weeks prior to Aldaoud’s arrival. He quickly gathered a paid crew to pose as Aldaoud’s family and procured a fake ID to get him past checkpoints. Two days after Aldaoud’s arrival, Kada drove to Najaf to pick him up and bring him safely to Baghdad.
As in Michigan, Aldaoud was effectively homeless in Baghdad, and he was constantly distraught. According to his sisters, he would often say that he would rather live in jail in the United States than on the streets in Iraq. “It wasn’t home for him,” said Mary. During a brief call with The Intercept, Aldaoud said he spent his days “staring at the wall.”
Though he would call his sisters often, Aldaoud relied heavily on Kada, his only real support in Iraq. He would sometimes stay at Kada’s apartment, and Kada would often run errands for him. The most important of those errands involved replenishing Aldaoud’s insulin supply — though Kada said he questioned the quality of the insulin he was able to obtain in Iraq.
Last weekend, Kada flew to Egypt to take care of a medical emergency of his own: He needed surgery for a stomach condition. Soon after he left, Aldaoud fell violently ill. Aldaoud called Mary, who got in touch with Kada, and they tried to convince him to go the hospital. He refused several times, according to his sisters. He was scared; while he vomited, he cried out for his mother.
On Monday, Aldaoud finally agreed to seek help, so Kada organized a ride to take Aldaoud to the hospital. In the hospital, doctors gave Aldaoud an IV and shots, according to Kada and Aldaoud’s sisters, and after a few hours, they discharged him, and he went to stay in Kada’s apartment. The next morning, Kada, still in Egypt, sent someone to check on him. He was on the floor, dead.
“He was scared and alone,” said Mary.
“They just picked up a random homeless person from Detroit and threw him in Iraq. They took advantage of his mental state.”
It was presumably Aldaoud’s diabetes that killed him. But to his sisters and the advocates supporting him, the obvious culprit was ICE.
His deportation “just shows a basic disregard for human life and human dignity,” said Miriam Aukerman, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan.
“They just picked up a random homeless person from Detroit and threw him in Iraq,” Mary said. “They took advantage of his mental state,” added Rita. “They didn’t give him that phone call — they scared him onto that plane.”
The sisters are now trying to ensure that their brother gets a proper burial. Members of Congress are attempting to facilitate transportation so they can bury him next to his mother in Michigan.
“Hopefully he’s at peace,” said Mary. “With his mom.”
In a lengthy statement, ICE officials in Detroit emphasized that Aldaoud’s case “underwent an exhaustive judicial review before the courts ultimately affirmed he had no legal basis to remain in the U.S.” They emphasized his “extensive criminal history involving no less than twenty convictions,” and that he “absconded from ICE’s non-custodial supervision program.” They asserted that, when he was deported, “he was supplied with a full complement of medicine to ensure continuity of care.” At no point in the statement did they express regrets at his death or condolences for his family.
ICE has deported at least 16 people to Iraq since the injunctions were lifted back in April, according to Schlanger of the University of Michigan. And officials are reportedly planning to deport more: They continue to refer to the presence of deportable Iraqis in the United States as a “public safety threat.”
In an effort to head off further deportations, a bipartisan group of representatives — led by Democrat Andy Levin and Republican John Moolenaar, both of Michigan — have introduced legislation that would grant Iraqis two years of “deferred removal” status, which the lawmakers reason would be enough time for them to have their cases heard in immigration court. But the bill, introduced in May, hasn’t yet made any progress, leaving more than 1,000 vulnerable Iraqis in a state of uncertainty.
“Jimmy Aldaoud … should have never been sent to Iraq,” Levin said in a statement Wednesday. “My Republican colleagues and I have repeatedly called on the executive branch to cease deportation of such vulnerable people. Now, someone has died. We cannot wait one more day for action.”
“We knew he would not survive if deported,” said Aukerman of Aldaoud’s case. “What we don’t know is how many more people ICE will send to their deaths.”
Updated: Aug. 9, 2019
This article was updated to include additional images.