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'Little Kurdistan' in Nashville beset by Trump immigration raids

Nashville’s Kurds bemoan heavy-handed busts as Trump’s immigration crackdown hits neighbourhood of country music hub
ICE has rounded up several residents across the country since Donald Trump became US president (AFP)

The Salahadeen Center of Nashville is usually packed with worshippers for the Muslim holy month. But members of its Kurdish-American flock are staying away during the first Ramadan since US President Donald Trump took office.

In a nationwide operation to round up and deport some 1,400 Iraqis, US federal immigration officers have deployed to Nashville, Tennessee - known as “Little Kurdistan” – for raids that have been criticised as heavy handed and even illegal.

Kurdish officials say they cannot help the detainees, as activists describe a Kurdish community under siege when it should be celebrating Ramadan and a long-awaited referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq in September.

Drost Kokoye, from the American Muslim Advisory Council (AMAC), told Middle East Eye of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers detaining a dozen people and continuing to knock on doors of homes and offices.

They are raid-style targeting Kurdish people in their homes and pulling them over on the street. ICE have showed up at people’s work places

- Drost Kokoye, American Muslim Advisory Council

“During Ramadan, if you go into the Salahadeen centre, it’s packed, wall to wall. If you go now, after ICE has been active in our neighbourhood, it’s hardly even attended because people are terrified and don’t feel safe anywhere,” Kokoye told MEE.

She described “illegal interactions” between ICE officers and Kurds, including the grilling of people on their doorsteps in dawn raids. AMAC has organised a petition and a helpline that advises callers only to help officers with a warrant.

“They are raid-style targeting Kurdish people in their homes and pulling them over on the street. ICE have showed up at people’s work places and asked managers about people’s work schedules, how long they’ve worked there, their immigration status and so on,” she said.

The raids are particularly troubling in the Holy Month and have shaken Nashville’s estimated 12,000 Kurds, many of whom settled in America’s capital of country of music in the 1980s and 1990s after Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack at Halabja, said Kokoye.

Nashville Kurds 'pose a threat to national security'?

Thomas Byrd, an ICE spokesman, denied that Kurds in Nashville had been harassed. “All enforcement activities are conducted with the same level of professionalism and respect that ICE officers exhibit every day,” Byrd told MEE.

Most of those being sought had convictions for crimes including homicide, rape, aggravated assault, kidnapping, burglary, drug trafficking, robbery, sex assault, weapons violations and other offences, he added.

“ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security. However … ICE will not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” Byrd said.

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Kokoye acknowledged that deporting foreign criminals was legal, but noted that many of the detainees had “served their time” and were “staying out of trouble”. Many had become parents, business owners and “examples to our community”.

Across the US, officers have arrested some 200 Iraqis in recent weeks, including 114 people around Detroit, home to many Iraqi Chaldeans, as the Trump administration pushes to increase immigration enforcement.

While the Detroit-based Chaldeans have support from The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of those detained in Michigan, the Kurds of Tennessee have fewer resources.

'Find a lawyer'

Bayan Sami Abdulrahman, envoy for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Washington, warned of dangers for deported Kurds in Iraq, but noted that there was little her colleagues could do to help.

“We have urged everybody who has contacted us to immediately find a lawyer. By the time we or Baghdad negotiates something, it will be too late for these individuals,” Abdulrahman told MEE.

“I know that there are many Kurds … particularly those who may have spent a long time in the US, who don’t even speak Arabic, who have nobody in Baghdad. So you’re sending people to a city where they don’t know anybody, the language or how to get around.”

Bayan Sami Abdulrahman is an envoy for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Washington (MEE/James Reinl)

Iraq’s government previously refused to accept nationals with criminal records that the US wished to deport. That changed three months ago when Baghdad agreed to accept deportees as part of a deal removing it from Trump’s seven-nation travel ban.

Abdulrahman said the KRG was “not aware of any agreement” between Washington and Baghdad. “We were taken by surprise when we received desperate calls from members of the Kurdish community,” in Nashville, she told MEE.

Abdulrahman said she had voiced concerns to the State Department. A spokesperson for the US government’s foreign arm said those arrested had benefited from due legal process, but were deemed “ineligible for any form of relief”.

“This effort in no way targets ethnic or religious groups. The law is applied the same to all individuals with final orders of removal, regardless of their country of origin,” the spokesperson told MEE, on condition that their name was not used.

Immigration officers descended on Nashville’s Kurds shortly after the announcement that their brethren back in northern Iraq would hold a much-anticipated referendum on independence from Iraq on 25 September.

Northern Iraq’s Kurds have long sought to break from the violence-plagued Sunni and Shia Muslim-majority regions to the south, but it is unclear how Baghdad will respond to a landslide vote for independence.

“This is not an opinion poll, it’s a binding referendum,” Abdulrahman told MEE. Kurds in North America, Europe and elsewhere will be able to take part via postal or internet voting, though the “mechanism has not been finalised”.

For Kokoye, the referendum cannot come soon enough. Like the Kurds in Iraq, those in Nashville broadly support a split, despite concerns that it could further destabilise a riven country that is still fighting the Islamic State (IS) group. 

“If you go through some of our community members’ Facebook pages, you’ll see that on all of their pictures at the bottom the line about voting ‘yes’ for this referendum and this little sense of freedom for Kurdistan that we’ve been fighting for, for a very long time,” she told MEE.