NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A Kurdish man who appears to have only minor convictions woke up to a knock on the door of his Tennessee home a week ago and was whisked away for deportation as part of a roundup of Iraqi nationals.
His wife said he could be killed if he's sent back to Iraq.
U.S. immigration officials have detained nearly 200 Iraqi nationals living in the U.S., but agency spokesman Thomas Byrd said they are targeting hardened criminals. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials detained Sarkaut Taro as part of an effort to send Iraqi nationals eligible for deportation back to Iraq under a deal with that country.
But Taro's family and attorney say he has only two convictions for minor crimes — both for selling alcohol to minors more than 10 years ago when he was still unfamiliar with U.S. laws. And his wife, Bayan, says his resume of films criticizing Iraq's occupation of Kurdistan and the Islamic State could make him a target if he's deported to Iraq.
Before the couple left Iraq in 2002 seeking asylum, pro-Saddam Hussein forces killed three of Sarkaut Taro's brothers, exiled his mother and burned their house, Bayan Taro said. A 2003 asylum hearing coincided with Saddam's fall from power, so a judge declined the request. Sarkaut Taro was issued an order of removal after his 2004 appeal, but immigration officials permitted the couple to remain in the country until things settled in Iraq, said Charla Haas, the Taros' attorney. They're still waiting for Iraq to be safe, Bayan Taro said.
The Iraq deal has led to arrests of 114 Iraqi nationals in Detroit last weekend, and 85 others elsewhere in past weeks, according to ICE. The arrests in Detroit, which focused on Chaldeans, sparked protests and a lawsuit by the ACLU. Immigrant advocates have viewed the arrests as part of a broader anti-immigrant push by the Trump administration.
ICE didn't comment directly on Sarkaut Taro's case or the number of Nashville detainees. Nashville immigration attorney Andrew Free said at least 12 people were arrested in about a week and a half, mostly members of the city's large Kurdish community.
Bayan Taro said she and her husband were in bed at 6 a.m. on June 9 when someone knocked at their kitchen door; she figured a neighbor needed something. Her 53-year-old husband answered in his pajamas, then called for her. Men in plain clothes had pulled up in unmarked cars, surrounded her husband and handcuffed him.
Bayan Taro said one man said they had some questions and that her husband would return in 10 minutes. An hour later, Sarkaut called his wife and said he was going to be deported.
"Since that day, I don't think there's any place safe in the world now," Bayan Taro said through an interpreter.
The agency's tactics have drawn scrutiny from local officials including Mayor Megan Barry, who asked ICE for the names and crimes of the Nashville detainees, noting "disturbing reports of members of our community being stopped, questioned, and even harassed."
In a letter to the agency, Barry cited a video where an ICE official questioned a Kurdish-American citizen "for no apparent reason" while wearing a "POLICE" vest. She said that can undermine local agencies' relationships with immigrant communities.
ICE defended the "police" vest as a recognizable law enforcement symbol, and said it doesn't release lists of people arrested for privacy reasons.
Charla Haas, the Taros' attorney, said she has reapplied for the couple to be granted asylum while Sarkaut remains detained in Louisiana.
Haas said Taro hasn't committed the type of offense ICE says it's targeting: homicide, rape, assault, kidnapping, burglary, drug trafficking and other violent crimes. Haas and Bayan Taro say Sarkaut Taro did community service and took a class for his 2003 and 2004 convictions. Any fine was covered by the store manager, Bayan Taro said.
Still, ICE isn't offering broad exemptions, and said "all of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States," Byrd said.
Bayan Taro says she worked at the grocery store, Taco Bell and elsewhere to support her husband's dreams. From 2004 to 2006, the two went to Louisiana to work with the military as cultural advisers for those heading to Iraq. She now helps him with film projects.
Nashville's arts and Kurdish communities have rallied with waves of letters to immigration officials, describing him as a well-respected, selfless professional.
"Mr. Taro presents no threats to the U.S. security," wrote Kirmanj Gundi, a Tennessee State University professor. "But to the contrary, he contributes to the bright side of the diversity of this great nation. He is a decent and responsible person."