Earlier this month, as I was standing with my right hand raised and swearing an oath of allegiance to the United States, one of the many thoughts racing through my mind was how dangerously close I came to never realizing this lifelong dream of being an American citizen.
Instead of becoming a newly minted U.S. citizen, I might easily be dead now if the Trump Administration had succeeded in its attempts to have me deported to Iraq.
It was nearly four years ago that a team of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents wearing bullet-proof vests showed up at my home in suburban Detroit early on a Sunday morning. Hauled off to jail as part of a nationwide roundup of Iraqi immigrants, I sat locked up for eight months before being released on bail, then waited nervously as my case worked its way through the legal system.
The thought of being forcibly returned to a country I have little memory of, and no connection to, terrified me. My parents, who were Chaldean Christians, came to this country when I was just 11 years old to escape the religious persecution – persecution I too could face if forced to return to a country where I couldn’t even speak the language. Adding to my distress were concerns about my health. Having undergone open-heart surgery in 2005, I worried about being able to maintain access to the multiple medications I must take every day to stay alive.
Even if I were lucky enough to survive on my own in Iraq, the life my wife, Nahrain, and I had worked so hard to build here in America would be in tatters. I worried that, without me here as the family breadwinner, our house might have to be sold just to provide them with money for food and life’s other essentials. And it filled me with despair to think that I would not be able to fulfill the promise made to our four children that their college educations would be paid for.
Letting them down like that would have broken my heart.
Making matters worse was the fact I would blame myself for all these troubles. That is because I made a stupid mistake as a much younger man: during a road confrontation, I foolishly brandished an unloaded pistol at another car’s driver in a misguided attempt to scare them away.
As a result, I served two years in prison.
I did my time, then set about turning my life around. For the next 20 years, I stayed on the straight and narrow, following all the rules. I got married to an amazing woman I’ve known since we were both 16, found a career in the grocery business, and began raising a family. Even though I wasn’t a citizen, I was pursuing the American dream.
Then, ICE came banging on my door.
Even though I had paid my debt to society, the government was trying to use that decades-old conviction as a reason to deport me. But instead of being sent to Iraq to face a precarious fate, I found immense good will and tireless support, especially from the ACLU of Michigan. The civil rights organization filed a class-action lawsuit, with me as lead plaintiff, aimed at stopping the deportations on the grounds that they would likely result in persecution, torture or death. The case made it possible for me and hundreds of Iraqis to access the immigration court system, as well as fight our cases from home, rather than in detention.
In 2018, then-governor Rick Snyder wiped my slate clean by granting me a pardon. Two years later, an immigration court judge determined I had rehabilitated myself, and issued an order allowing me to remain in this country. Instead of facing the prospect of deportation, I was able to take the steps necessary to ensure I would never be in that position again. That effort culminated when I raised my hand without hesitation and swore to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
As this Thanksgiving Day approaches – my first as an American citizen-- I am counting my many blessings.
The relief I feel now that I am a citizen is immense. I can rest assured that I will never be forced to leave this country, and our family will remain together. I am no longer looking over my shoulder every time I leave the house, fearful that ICE might be coming for me again. That feeling is gone, forever.
I am keeping the promise made to my children by sending them to college. Not letting them down is particularly important to me. My oldest daughter is in medical school, and two of her siblings are attending Michigan universities. Our fourth child, a sophomore in high school, will be following in their footsteps soon. They are good kids, and I’m immensely proud of them all.
I didn’t become a citizen until after the presidential election was over, and was disappointed at being unable to vote. But you can bet that I will be casting a ballot the first chance I get. That will be a proud, proud day for me. My goal is to be more than just a citizen; I want very much to be an active citizen, and participating in elections is part of that.
Words cannot express the incredible joy I feel now that I’m finally able to say, “I am an American.” And someday, when my time comes, I will face the end of my life filled with peace knowing I will be buried here in the country that I love with all my heart.
For all this, and so much more, I am truly thankful.