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It's Been Tough Going For A Man That The U.S. Sent Back To Iraq

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now we hear what it's like to be deported to Iraq. Over the summer, a judge stopped U.S. immigration officials from trying so hard to send people there. The government was accused of pressuring Iraqis to agree to go. The court case has halted deportations of more than 1,400 Iraqis. But before that ruling, some people were sent back. NPR's Jane Arraf met one in Baghdad.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: I'm waiting at the arrivals gate at Baghdad's international airport with Naser al-Shimary, and he's nervous.

NASER AL-SHIMARY: Last time I held my wife and son was May - May 2017. It was the last time I got to kiss them and hold them.

ARRAF: His son, Vincent, just turned 4. Shimary's partner, Chelsea Ravasani, is bringing their son from the U.S. just for four days. That's all the time she could get off work. We're waiting at the same doors Shimary walked through eight months ago after he was deported from the U.S. He landed here with no money, no phone, no contacts in a country he hadn't lived in since he was 2.

AL-SHIMARY: I'm Iraqi by birth. I'm not Iraqi to them. I'm sorry to say, but I'm not Iraqi. To them, I'm a foreigner. They know I'm different. They know by the way I speak, the way I walk, the way I carry myself.

ARRAF: He ended up near Najaf, a conservative city south of Baghdad, living in a slum with people from all over Iraq who can't go home again. Iraq is still a dangerous place. There are Iranian-backed militias, criminal gangs, rogue security forces. Shimary is a skinny guy with tattoos along his neck and on his wrists. He speaks broken Arabic with an American accent. He sticks out like a sore thumb. Four months ago, he says he was attacked by a group of men he didn't know, beaten up so badly he had to crawl home. He was afraid when he came, and now he's terrified.

AL-SHIMARY: I barricade myself in. I lock the door with a hinge and a chain and a padlock from the inside once it gets dark. By 8 o'clock, I barricade myself in like I'm in jail. I don't open the door for no one.

ARRAF: He doesn't leave the house in the morning until his neighbor has checked that no one is hiding outside. His biggest fear is that people will know he came from the United States. Sometimes he forgets when he's talking to Iraqis and uses English words.

AL-SHIMARY: So it slips up, and they say you didn't just speak English, did you? And I tell them, no, I speak - I was speaking French. And I have to lie. I have to lie just so I can feel safe

ARRAF: Shimary was a permanent U.S. resident. His partner and son are American. Eight years ago, he was convicted of assaulting his brother-in-law in Michigan. He spent three years in prison. When he got out, he complied with all the immigration requirements, and he had no problem for the next five years. Immigration authorities swept up thousands of people in raids in 2017. They were targeting people with prior convictions and visa violations, and they told Shimary falsely that if he didn't agree to be sent back to Iraq, he could spend another 10 years in jail, so he agreed. This August, a federal court ruled that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was illegally pressuring people into agreeing to leave. It further suspended deportation orders for more than 1,400 Iraqis but too late for Shimary.

AL-SHIMARY: What happened to us is not right, you know? Everybody make mistakes, and I paid for my mistake.

ARRAF: Back in Michigan, he got a university degree. He bought a home. He started an auto mechanic business. Here, he sometimes relies on charity for food. At the arrivals terminal, he's so excited at the prospect of seeing his family, he can't stand still. He eventually spots them through the glass.

AL-SHIMARY: There she is. There she is. I see her. She's wearing that red jacket. And there go my little man.

ARRAF: And then Vincent - Vinnie - is here with a suitcase full of toys and Superman underwear. He kisses his dad.

AL-SHIMARY: You miss Daddy?

VINCENT: Yeah.

AL-SHIMARY: I miss you more.

VINCENT: What's this place?

AL-SHIMARY: This is the airport. This is Iraq.

VINCENT: Yes, this is Iraq.

ARRAF: Iraq - it's supposed to be Shimary's home country, but he doesn't think he can survive here. The U.S. is the only home he's known. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.