A daughter of an Iraqi immigrant detained recalls when ICE agents showed up at her home in Sterling Heights on June 11 to arrest him.
Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press

On the surface, the federal court hearing on Thursday was about whether a person in a federal immigration-detention facility has a constitutional right to starve himself to death.

But the backstory was about immigration policy in the Donald Trump era.

Louis Akrawi was a prominent fixture of the Chaldean community in Detroit. He was also an ex-convict and has been subject to a deportation order since 2009. But Iraq, which he fled in 1968, would not accept repatriated persons from the United States.

That changed in March with President Trump’s revised travel ban prohibiting entry of individuals from certain predominantly Muslim countries. Iraq was removed from the banned list. In turn, it lifted its own restrictions on accepting deportees.

Akrawi was arrested May 22, and since then he has been moved — sometimes on a daily basis — to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities, first in Michigan and Ohio, then Louisiana and Arizona.

Weeks later, in June, ICE officers made a major sweep, arresting more than 100 Iraqis in Detroit, most of them also Chaldeans, scattering them to immigrant-detention centers around the country to await deportation.

Akrawi, 69, landed at Arizona’s center in Florence. His attorneys estimate that there are 10 to 40 other Chaldeans in a “pod” there. When Akrawi was separated from the others for supposed security threats, he went on a hunger strike.

On July 7, when Akrawi seemed to be failing rapidly, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix filed a petition for a temporary restraining order that would allow the detention facility to force-feed him.

On Thursday, attorneys for Akrawi faced off against federal prosecutors in U.S. District Court in Phoenix to challenge therestraining order. By then, Akrawi had been taking liquids and was recovering from dehydration. At 280 pounds on a 5-foot-10-inch frame, he was obese. And though he had already lost 21 pounds, a doctor testified that he could go another 40 days or more on his body fat, as long as he remained hydrated.

It was a moot point. Akrawi announced over a telephone hookup that he was ending his hunger strike — for now — but could possibly begin another if he is not reunited with his “people,” who he claims he needs to “train” for survival in Iraq because most of them speak neither Chaldean nor Arabic and have no idea how to comport themselves in Iraqi culture.


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ACLU: Targeted in Iraq

The bigger story is compelling.

The ICE sweeps in Detroit and elsewhere were aimed at deporting Iraqi immigrants who are convicted criminals. They had nothing to do with “Muslim extremism” or terrorism.

Chaldeans, like Akrawi, are Christians. They speak Aramaic, which was the language spoken by Jesus and John the Baptist. 

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action suit on their behalf in U.S. District Court in Michigan, claiming that the Chaldeans were likely to be targeted by ISIS and other secular groups. A judge there imposed a temporary restraining order stopping their deportations, though attorneys for ICE argued that a District Court judge had no jurisdiction over immigration cases.

Akrawi claims he came to the U.S. in 1968 after participating in an aborted coup d’etat against the ruling party of Saddam Hussein. He settled in Detroit where he owned a restaurant, and according to law enforcement there, became a drug kingpin.

Investigators say that in the late 1980s and 1990s, Akrawi ran a Chaldean gang that took over vast swaths of the metropolitan Detroit drug trade.

The gang was known for violence, including bombings, shootings and contract killings, some of them directed at police officers. Akrawi had survived attempts on his life that left scars on his back, leg, stomach and chest.

In 1993, gunmen sprayed automatic-weapon fire on a Detroit market, an attack that police said Akrawi ordered in retaliation against a rival in the drug business, who had tried to kill Akrawi the day before.

The rival wasn’t killed in the attack, but a market customer was killed as he waited in line at a cash register to buy milk. 

Akrawi was charged with first-degree murder for ordering the hit. A jury later convicted him of second-degree murder and a judge sentenced him to 15 to 25 years in prison. He served 20 years before being released on parole in February 2016.

He was living with his sister in a Detroit suburb when he was arrested after reporting to an ICE office. He had an open deportation order dating to 2009.

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‘How to survive in Iraq’

In his declaration in the current court matter, Akrawi claims that his siblings, five children and five grandchildren are all U.S. citizens, and that he had been in compliance with his local ICE office.

During a brief stay in a detention facility in Youngstown, Ohio, according to the declaration, Akrawi took it upon himself “to teach the younger Chaldeans about how to survive in Iraq.”

During the Thursday hearing, Akrawi told Judge David Campbell that many of the Chaldean detainees speak neither Chaldean nor Arabic and are ignorant of Iraqi customs.

“If they talk like that over there, they would be shot in the first week,” he said.

Authorities repeatedly told him he would be placed with his fellow Chaldeans “tomorrow,” then the day after and the day after that. He began his hunger strike on June 30.

In pleadings, Assistant U.S. Attorney Katherine Branch wrote that Akrawi was trying to manipulate the system with his hunger strike.

“You have no constitutional right to starve yourself,” she said in open court.

Christopher Thomas, an attorney with the Phoenix office of the law firm Perkins Coie, argued on behalf of the ACLU that Akrawi was at no immediate risk of death and that there was no need to restrain or force-feed him.

More than an hour into Thursday’s hearing, the crisis ended with Akrawi’s pronouncement:

“I have given my word,” he said. “After this (hearing), I will eat. If I am not returned to my people, I can go on a hunger strike again.”

Campbell then ruled that he would convert the restraining order into a more-permanent preliminary injunction, leaving in place the government’s ability to administer fluids and monitor Akrawi’s health, but denying the ability to restrain or force-feed him.

After the hearing, in conversation with Akrawi’s attorneys, Branch blurted out that the government’s security concerns were not that Akrawi would cause a threat, but that the other Chaldeans had threatened Akrawi .

She paraphrased the argument as, “We don’t want him here. If you move him in, we’re going to kick his ass.”

An associate then whispered something in Branch’s ear, and she stopped talking. Akrawi’s attorneys were caught unaware by the statement.

Detroit Free Press reporter John Wisely contributed to this article.


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