A Listening Post special on migration and the media’s role in framing this era-defining story.
Ankara, Turkey – Just 10 years after the United States granted him asylum, 34-year-old Hussein Yasser Hassan is on the run again.
Tearing open four packets of sugar pinched tightly between his tattooed fingers and dumping them into a small glass of tea at a cafe in the Turkish capital, Ankara, the Iraqi refugee sighs deeply and brings his story back to the beginning of his problems – the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Originally from Baqubah, a small town just over an hour’s drive north of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, Hassan was drafted into the military and assigned to the Diyala police force shortly before US forces entered the country to topple longtime president, Saddam Hussein.
On the day foreign troops entered the town of al-Khalis near Baqubah, Hassan says he returned to his hometown to be close to his mother. He only returned to work five months later, when US forces called for him.
He was fast-tracked into one of Iraq’s first US-trained SWAT teams and became a bodyguard for the head of the counterterrorism police in Diyala province, Ghassan Adnan al-Khadran.
The work was dangerous, with armed groups, including al-Qaeda, waging a violent campaign against US-led and government forces. Al-Khadran frequently came under attack. One suicide attack targeting his convoy killed 48 civilians.
Hassan, a Shia Muslim, says al-Qaeda and other Sunni militias fighting US-led forces in Iraq saw him as a traitor.
In 2005, the Ansar al-Sunna armed group posted a “threatening letter” at the homes of several men who worked with al-Khadran. Hassan was among them.
In a matter of days, five of the men on the list had been killed. Fearing he would be next, Hassan fled to Lebanon from where he applied for refugee status in the US.
Three years later, he was on his way to the US and a new life, but not before his twin brother, Ali, had been kidnapped back in Iraq.
stayed [in Iraq], I knew he would get killed like his brother, so it was better that he went to the US, and me not seeing him, than him staying in Iraq and getting killed.”]
Hassan says someone messaged him on Yahoo messenger to tell him they were going to kill his brother “because they wanted me to come back”.
Ali’s whereabouts are still unknown, although Iman Mohammed Nawroz, Hassan and Ali’s mother, told the police she had heard that suspects in the 2007 case had confessed to killing him on the day he was abducted.
“I was destroyed and my life just stopped,” says 61-year-old Nawroz, speaking by phone from Iraq.
Although Hassan’s initial instinct was to return to Iraq to be near his mother, she insisted that he remain in Lebanon to continue his application for refugee status in the US.
“If he [had] stayed [in Iraq], I knew he would get killed like his brother, so it was better that he went to the US, and me not seeing him, than him staying in Iraq and getting killed,” Nawroz explained.
In July 2008, Hassan arrived as a refugee in Salt Lake City, Utah, and quickly became a permanent resident.
For nearly a decade, he lived happily in Utah.
“I loved everything about the US,” he says softly, “the freedom, the weather, the people were really nice, I felt safe there. Everything was nice.”
At 183cm (6 feet) tall and weighing 90kg (200 pounds), Hassan found work as a security guard in bars and nightclubs. Compared with his job in Iraq, it felt safe and undemanding – and it paid the bills.
As the years passed, he put down roots, surrounding himself with a tight-knit group of friends and marrying an American woman.
But there was one thing he failed to do that would later haunt him: become a naturalised US citizen. He took the naturalisation exam once but failed due to his poor English, and never tried again.
In 2016, after two years of marriage, Hassan’s relationship with his wife started to unravel. He began taking drugs and “mixing with the wrong crowd”. Not long after, he was arrested over a drunken fight at the house of a friend of a friend. He was charged with burglary, a felony.
Hassan says he had not realised it at the time, but because he had never become a naturalised citizen, he could be stripped of his green card and deported if he committed one in a long list of crimes that range from petty misdemeanours, such as possession of cannabis, to felonies such as rape and murder and burglary.
In March 2017 Hassan pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary and two third-degree felonies – extortion and witness tampering – and was sentenced to 230 days in county jail. He also agreed to undergo a mental health check and attend anger management classes.
The previous autumn, Donald Trump had been elected president. One of his main campaign promises was to crack down on immigration.
First, it was the so-called “Muslim Ban” – an executive order barring nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US that Trump signed just a week after his inauguration in January 2017. Iraq was originally one of the seven countries on this list.
A few months later, as the spotlight turned to the US-Mexico border, where Trump was promising to build a wall to stem the flow of undocumented migrants from Central and South America, the Trump administration quietly began deporting Iraqis with criminal records.
The removal of any Iraqi from the United States to the country of Iraq, especially those with ties to the US and/or religious minorities, would put the individual at high risk of persecution or torture.
The US had stopped deporting Iraqi permanent residents following the 2003 invasion, with the Iraqi government refusing to take them back. However, following Trump’s election, Iraq agreed to start taking back its nationals who had committed crimes in the US.
According to Reuters, in total, nearly 150 Iraqis have been deported back to Iraq since April 17, 2017 – the day the first flight returned eight to Iraq.
After Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested more than 100 Iraqis in the Detroit area in one weekend in July 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU) filed an emergency lawsuit against ICE in an attempt to stop the deportations, in what is called the Hamama v Adducci case.
In their petition, the ACLU stated that Iraq was not a safe place and that many of those facing deportation were at risk of persecution, torture or even death upon their return.
“The removal of any Iraqi from the United States to the country of Iraq, especially those with ties to the US and/or religious minorities, would put the individual at high risk of persecution or torture and is therefore in violation of federal and international law,” testified Rebecca Heller, the director and cofounder of the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and an expert witness supporting the lawsuit.
A federal judge ruled in favour of the ACLU, blocking the government from deporting most Iraqis with standing deportation orders – with immediate effect – until they had a chance to argue their individual cases in court based on current country conditions.
This victory was short-lived, however. In December 2018, a Court of Appeals overturned the stay on deportation orders and some 1,400 more Iraqis with old removal orders were again at risk of being deported.
“What is happening here is that people are being condemned to a life of persecution or torture, or they are being condemned to death,” says Miriam Aukerman, senior ACLU staff lawyer. “We are not supposed to send people to a place where they’re going to be persecuted, tortured or killed.”
“I know I did wrong,” says Hassan of the crimes he committed.
He sighs often as he talks about his life in the US and sometimes stirs his tea absentmindedly as he gathers his thoughts.
“I know I shouldn’t have drank and I shouldn’t have hung out with bad people at parties. I shouldn’t have done that. I was wrong.”
During his sentencing, his immigration status was only briefly addressed. In a recording, the judge can be heard asking Hassan directly: “Do you understand that by entering these pleas they may affect your ability to stay in the United States and there may be an order that you be deported from the United States?”
Hassan confirms he understands this. However, following this statement, Hassan’s lawyer can be heard telling the judge: “I don’t think he’ll be deported … it’s my understanding that currently, the United States is not deporting our refugees to the country of Iraq, so I don’t believe there’s a detainer, but as we all know those immigration issues can be in flux. So, right now I expect him to be able to do probation. He’s here, he’s here legally.”
But when Hassan was released from county jail after serving his sentence, ICE was waiting for him. He was arrested on the spot and taken to immigration detention, where he spent roughly a year and three months, including six months in solitary confinement.
“I signed my deportation orders, [because] they told me if I didn’t sign they would keep me in detention for years and years,” Hassan says.
And so, on July 10, 2018, he boarded a commercial flight in Texas, along with two ICE officers, and started his long journey back to Iraq.
“When they took me to the airport and put me in the aeroplane, my heart stopped,” he says. “I really didn’t want to go [back to Iraq], but they told me not to act crazy so they wouldn’t have to handcuff me. I didn’t have a choice.”
“For a plea to be valid, a person needs to be informed of the immigration consequences,” explains Aukerman. “Here, particularly because Hussein didn’t speak English well, it seems very likely that he didn’t understand that his plea could get him deported.”
The ACLU, which is trying to find a lawyer to reopen Hassan’s case, also says he was actively coerced into signing his deportation orders.
“There are two levels of coercion,” explains Aukerman. “There’s outright coercion … where people were lied to and told that they would be criminally prosecuted if they didn’t sign the forms stating that they wanted to go to Iraq.” And then there were the threats of indefinite incarceration, she adds.
If this administration values human life, it should immediately stop all deportations to Iraq. At a bare minimum, the government should agree to automatic reopening of all Iraqi cases … Congress cannot just stand by while people are being deported into such a dangerous situation.
Hassan could not be sure what was waiting for him back in Iraq but, boarding that flight, he says he knew it was nothing good.
Two months later, he found out.
Hassan and his sister were returning to their mother’s house one evening after running some errands. As they approached, they were shot at five times by two men who had been following them.
One bullet hit him in the arm, one struck his sister in the back and the rest burrowed into the walls and door of the house.
Hassan’s sister recovered, but after being treated for his wounds at a nearby hospital, he went into hiding.
Two weeks later, Hassan says, his father suffered a stress-induced heart attack and later died.
When asked about Hassan’s case and if ICE had assessed possible harm to Hassan from returning to Iraq, Matthew Albence, acting director of ICE, said: “Foreigners who are subject to removal under our immigration laws receive extensive due process.”
He added: “If they claim fear of returning to their home country or wish to assert other legal defences to removal, they have every opportunity to pursue those.”
Albence did not comment on Hassan’s case.
“If this administration values human life, it should immediately stop all deportations to Iraq,” says Aukerman. “At a bare minimum, the government should agree to automatic reopening of all Iraqi cases … Congress cannot just stand by while people are being deported into such a dangerous situation. It must pass the bipartisan Deferred Removal for Iraqi Nationals Including Minorities Act, which would pause deportations for two years to allow the immigration courts to review old removal orders.”
Hassan now says he would rather have spent the rest of his life in prison in the US than be deported back to Iraq.
“Immigration custody is better than living in Iraq,” he says. “If I knew, I would never have signed my papers.”
After surviving what he believes was an assassination attempt and spending eight months in hiding, Hassan says he was on the verge of a mental breakdown.
So in August, a year after his return to Iraq, he fled to Turkey.
His problems, however, are far from over.
they told me if I didn’t sign they would keep me in detention for years and years … When they took me to the airport and put me in the aeroplane, my heart stopped. I really didn’t want to go [back to Iraq].”]
With a 60-day tourist visa, his time in Turkey is limited. Even if he overstays his visa and manages to avoid the authorities, he would have few ways of supporting himself.
Fearful of being stopped on the street and asked for identification and immigration documentation, Hassan mostly stays indoors, waiting for the Iraqi friend he is staying with to return from work so that they can smoke cigarettes and drink tea together.
“[There’s] nothing to do but sleep and wake up, wake up and sleep. That’s it. That’s all I can do,” he says.
The only other option Hassan has considered is continuing onwards towards Europe, following the well-beaten refugee trail. This would require approximately $4,000 and several risks he is not sure he is ready to take.
“I’m thinking about going to Europe in the boat, but I don’t have the money to go [right now],” he explains.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, I’m [just] waiting,” he says.
“I have no future, I don’t have any choices, but I’m not going back to Iraq.”
Hassan’s story stemmed from field research done for the Global Migration Project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. One of the defining goals of the Project is to create a record of people who have been deported from the US to their deaths, or to other forms of harm (including torture, sexual assault and extortion).
The database, which now documents more than 100 instances of US deportations-to-harm, initially included cases of asylum-seekers killed or attacked after deportations to Central America and Mexico, but has recently expanded to include cases of US deportees harmed around the world, including in Iraq, Somalia, Cameroon and Mauritania. A forthcoming, searchable version of the database will be accessible to the public with the support of a Magic Grant from the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation.