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Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Brenda Sisneros’ world took a horrific turn on June 20 with a loud knock on the door of the family’s home, leading to her husband’s arrest by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
“I went to the door and there were two ICE officers asking to talk to him,” Sisneros recalled recently. “They said they just wanted to ask him a couple questions.”
The 9 a.m. visit surprised the couple because Abbas Al-Sokaini, 52, had an appointment to meet with ICE officials just three days later.
When ICE officers demanded that Al-Sokaini leave with them, he told his wife of 13 years that he would not be allowed to return home.
“He hugged me,” Sisneros said, her eyes filling with tears. “He said: ‘They’re not going to bring me back. They’re not going to let you come get me. They’re taking me.’ ”
A day later, the 20-year Albuquerque resident and home-health worker was in ICE detention in El Paso facing deportation to Iraq.
He remained in the El Paso facility Friday, ICE detention records show, and it’s not clear when – or if – he will be released.
Al-Sokaini is named as a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of more than 1,400 Iraqis nationwide who face deportation to a country they fled years or decades ago, often as refugees.
“The grounds for the entire case were that returning people to Iraq would expose them to persecution, torture and possible death,” said Kristin Greer Love, an attorney for the ACLU in Albuquerque.
The Iraqis facing deportation have criminal backgrounds in the United States for a variety of offenses. Al-Sokaini pleaded no contest in 2000 to possession of cocaine and conspiracy to possess cocaine, both felonies, and a 2nd Judicial District judge in Albuquerque sentenced him to three years of probation, court records show.
As in Al-Sokaini’s case, more than half the Iraqis facing deportation were convicted of criminal offenses a decade ago or longer, Love said. The convictions led ICE to obtain “orders of removal” that could result in their deportations.
“Country conditions in Iraq have changed dramatically over that period,” Love said. “The due process argument is that people need a meaningful opportunity to appear before an immigration judge before they are deported on these old orders of removal.”
Al-Sokaini recently obtained free representation by a Los Angeles attorney for his immigration case, Love said.
For decades, Iraq refused to accept deported Iraqi nationals. But, in March, Iraq agreed to accept the deportees after President Donald Trump’s administration dropped Iraq from a list of six predominantly Muslim countries that faced travel restrictions to the United States.
ICE subsequently began a sweep of Iraqis with deportation orders, leading to the arrests of Al-Sokaini and more than 200 other Iraqis nationwide.
Another Albuquerque man, Kadhim Al-bumohammed, is also among the 1,400 Iraqis included in the Michigan class-action suit.
Al-bumohammed, 61, did not appear in July at a scheduled meeting at the ICE field office in Albuquerque and instead sought sanctuary at a local church.
In 1997 in California, Al-bumohammed was convicted twice of misdemeanor domestic violence charges.
A federal judge in Michigan ordered a stay July 24 that, for now, prevents the U.S. government from deporting the Iraqis.
Many of those facing deportation say they would be persecuted if they returned to Iraq, either for their religious beliefs, or for collaborating with U.S. military personnel.
Carl Rusnok, an ICE spokesman in Dallas, said recently that anyone in violation of U.S. immigration laws is subject to deportation, regardless of circumstances.
“ICE will not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” Rusnok said in a written statement. “All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention” and deportation, he said.
Al-bumohammed aided the U.S. military during the Persian Gulf War and later taught language and cultural awareness to U.S. soldiers at military bases in California, supporters said.
For Al-Sokaini, deportation to Iraq would endanger his life for two reason, his wife said.
First, Al-Sokaini attends a Baptist church in Albuquerque, and people in Iraq are aware of his Christian beliefs, which would mark him for retribution in Muslim-majority Iraq, Sisneros said.
In addition, Al-Sokaini collaborated with the U.S. military during the Persian Gulf War by leading soldiers to a cache of weapons and ammunition, she said.
“It is dangerous for him to go back there,” she said.
Sisneros, who said she voted for Trump, said she supported his campaign promise to deport career criminals from the United States.
“I thought that President Trump’s thing was going (to deport) people who were constantly in trouble,” Sisneros said. “There are people here who have no good intentions for our country, but (Abbas) isn’t one of them. He loves America.”
The couple have three adult children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Sisneros describes her husband as a hard worker who drives for Lyft and Uber in addition to his work as a home-health worker.
“He wasn’t hurting anyone,” Sisneros said of her husband. “He was just living the way Americans should live. We just want to keep our family together and let us live our lives.”