In 2003, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, then-president George W. Bush told Americans in a radio broadcast, “We are bringing aid to the long-suffering people of Iraq, and we are bringing something more. We are bringing hope.” In the years following the U.S. invasion, millions of Iraqis fled their homes to neighboring countries, Europe, and the United States. Chaldean Iraqis, Catholics concentrated in the Nineveh Plains region of northern Iraq, became a particularly vulnerable group—at risk of persecution not only because of their religion but also because many served as interpreters for the U.S. military. Chaldeans’ unique intercultural military encounter set the stage for a specific type of migration tied to U.S. imperialism. In part due to their support of the U.S. military and their Christian faith, Chaldeans successfully lobbied for the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act in 2008. The bill increased Iraqi resettlement in the United States almost tenfold between 2007 and 2008. Although there was already a large Chaldean community in Detroit, the bill spurred the growth of another Chaldean community in El Cajon, CA, a city fifteen miles east of San Diego.
What types of networks of obligation does the military encounter between the United States and Chaldeans create, and what are its limits? How does this encounter inform Chaldean interactions with white Americans? Through interviews with Chaldeans on a trip to El Cajon in March 2018 and an analysis of local news narratives, I investigate moments of hopeful encounters between Chaldeans and the United States. I argue that Chaldeans leveraged their work as interpreters for the U.S. military as a debt owed, successfully securing them resettlement in the United States. However, Chaldeans are also precarious subjects not immune to white American backlash.
Using Ghassan Hage’s work on spatial formations of race and his concept of the nation as a distributor of hope, I illustrate that Chaldeans were admitted to the United States at a time when there was little hope to go around. The height of Chaldean resettlement in El Cajon coincided with the 2008 financial crisis, which hit the working-class neighborhood particularly hard. Chaldeans were quickly painted as ungrateful immigrants with unfair access to social welfare benefits. Although they supported the U.S. military, their Iraqiness marks them as a suspicious other, and their imperial condition also limits U.S. obligations to them. In this sense, the case of Chaldean resettlement in El Cajon highlights many of the issues Western nations must confront with the current refugee crisis.
Chaldeans’ Arabic language knowledge in addition to their general support of the overthrow of Saddam made them the perfect recruits for U.S. military interpreting contracts. They were also valued for their cultural knowledge, reflecting the U.S. Army’s shift in 2006 toward the “weaponization of culture” to better understand the enemy and “attack their weak spots.”[i] As Rochelle Davis illustrates, the U.S. military’s understanding of Iraq and Iraqis at the time of the U.S. occupation was both reductionist and often inaccurate, which ultimately led to the entrenchment of sectarian tensions in the minds of U.S. soldiers before the occurrence of sectarian fighting. Given the shortcomings of the U.S. military’s cultural training, soldiers relied on their Iraqi counterparts for communication and a more accurate understanding of which Iraqis were the “bad guys” and which were the “good guys,” as Davis notes. Ultimately, though, the U.S. military presence in Iraq was first and foremost an occupation, under which conditions the relevance of cultural sensitivity is tenuous as the occupied are also potential enemies. This reflects Chaldeans’ contradictory colonial embodiment: their linguistic and cultural knowledge makes them an asset to U.S. forces, but it also has the capacity to make them “objects of suspicion” as the “adversaries cohabit in them.”[ii]
The vulnerable position of Chaldean interpreters in Iraq prompted Chaldeans in the United States to evoke the language of sacrifice to secure special immigrant visas (or SIVs) and refugee status for Iraqi Chaldeans. Beginning in 2006, the Chaldean Federation of America (CFA), a Chaldean civil society group in Detroit, launched their lobbying efforts in support of what would become the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, which created visas for Chaldeans based on three distinctions: first, their work as contractors for the U.S. military; second, their status as religious minorities; and third, their connection to a large Chaldean diasporic community in the United States.
In 2007, CFA executive director Joseph Kassab told The Detroit News, “The Chaldean people thought that the United States had a good cause in Iraq . . . Some of them worked very closely with the U.S. government and the U.S. Army in Iraq. And because of that, they were considered collaborators and they received threats.”[iii] This was more than a plea to humanitarianism; it was cashing in on a debt owed. Members of Congress were aware of this debt and similarly used it to pass the bill. Sen. Edward Kennedy reminded the public in June 2007 that “America has a strong obligation to keep faith with the Iraqis who have worked so bravely with us—and have often paid a terrible price for it . . . we are united in our belief that America has a fundamental obligation to assist the Iraqis who have courageously supported our forces and our effort in Iraq and whose lives are in peril as a result.”[iv]
Members of Congress also highlighted the plight of Iraqi Christians in their appeals for the bill. “These minorities are often targeted by Islamic extremists for murder, rape, or forced conversion,”[v] as Sen. Gordon Smith stated. Smith’s statement highlights another important aspect of the CFA’s strategy―distinguishing their refugee applicants as Christians to quell fears of Islamic extremism on U.S. soil. Rather than the “bad Muslims” against which the U.S. was waging war in Iraq, Chaldeans were “good Christians” who could easily assimilate to life in the United States. The criminalized status of Muslims in the United States and abroad post-9/11 was another reason the CFA and Christian advocates were successful.
Ultimately, the passage of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act led to an increase of Iraqi refugee admission from 2,631 in 2007 to more than 19,000 in 2009.[vi] Although Christians made up only 6 percent of Iraq’s population at the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003, almost an equal number of Iraqi Christians as Muslims were accepted to the United States in 2008 and 2009. While Christian exceptionalism enabled Chaldeans to gain refugee status in the United States, it did not turn out to mean that they were racialized differently than their Muslim counterparts once they arrived in the United States.
The Limits of Multiculturalism
Since the enactment of the Refugee Crisis Act in 2008, the town of El Cajon has received more than 11,000 Iraqi refugees, most of whom are Chaldean. While earlier waves of Chaldean immigrants to El Cajon were largely urban elites, the post-2008 wave was comprised of refugees from Christian villages in the Nineveh Plains. The newer refugees lives mostly in downtown El Cajon and on the northern periphery of the city, areas where the 24 percent poverty rate is one of the highest in San Diego County. This group has expanded the number of Chaldean-owned businesses, and Chaldean youth now make up the majority of the student population at the schools in the city’s downtown area. The city has been nicknamed Little Baghdad by Chaldeans and non-Chaldeans alike.
Although Chaldean refugees have helped develop the city, response to their arrival has been mixed. While some of the city’s non-Chaldean residents were welcoming, others were frustrated to find the once familiar landscape illegible. On the other hand, Chaldeans who have been in the United States for decades blame refugees for rendering worthless the cultural capital they’ve worked so hard to accrue.
Anthropologist Ghassan Hage posits that nations are distributors of societal hope, or “the production and distribution of a meaningful and dignified social life.”[vii] Capitalist nations distribute hope through national identification and the possibility of upward mobility. However, capitalist societies distribute hope unequally, with some groups being offered very little if any at all. In order to evade a crisis of hope, capitalist nations try to balance the interests of capitalists with their commitment to constructing a viable society for their citizens. Hospitality toward migrants and refugees falls under this schema as it both enables a source of cheap labor and helps maintain the image of the nation as committed to the good—liberalism, multiculturalism, and humanitarianism.
However, as Hage argues, the ability of migrants to settle in Western nations has always been based on those nations’ surplus of hope as a precondition for their hospitality. In recent years, the West has lacked such a surplus. At the same time, a global refugee crisis has increased demand on Western nations to open their doors to migrants and refugees. What sets Chaldeans apart, though, is their ability to leverage a debt accrued through sacrifice. Thus, for Chaldeans, their ability to settle in the United States has been less based on the hospitality of the U.S. government than a moral obligation. Because Chaldeans were admitted to El Cajon at such high rates at a time when the United States was lacking hope for its citizens in the wake of the 2008 housing market crash, they were met with a backlash from their new neighbors.
As in his earlier work, Hage bases his argument on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept that individuals work to accumulate social being through cultural capital. Cultural capital is “the sum of valued knowledge, styles, social and physical (bodily) characteristics and practical behavioural dispositions within a given field.”[viii] While the value of different forms of national capital fluctuates based on historical conjunctures and the internal struggle in the field of national power, some near constants in the case of the United States include factors such as Christianity, financial capital, fluency in English, skin color, and an “American” accent.
Early waves of Chaldean immigrants had worked hard to build cultural capital in El Cajon. Aiming for cultural acceptance as well as financial success in their new city, the first generation of Chaldean immigrants established businesses that were palatable to their new white neighbors, without conspicuous Chaldean or Arab markers. Likewise, their social clubs and churches blended in with the surroundings. Above all, Chaldeans stressed their Christian faith, hardworking nature, and patriotism. In news articles published in the days and months following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Chaldeans shared patriotic sentiments like, “America is not an occupier. It is a liberator.”[ix] Over the next few years, most local news coverage of Chaldeans either stressed their work as interpreters and contractors for the U.S. military or used Chaldean testimony to depict Iraqi suffering under Saddam.
As the number of refugees increased, however, news coverage of Chaldeans changed. The San Diego Union Tribune began chronicling local frustrations with the city’s changes in 2010. An article from August of that year reads:
And on that city’s Main Street, signs are popping up in Arabic . . . [Mayor Mark] Lewis welcomes the growing number of Chaldean shopkeepers and other Middle Eastern entrepreneurs, but says some locals find the signs unsettling. “Some of our old-timers are starting to wonder where their American culture is going,” he said. “They ask, ‘Why are we starting to look like Little Baghdad?’”[x]
Chaldean entrepreneurship was suddenly unsettling. As more Chaldeans arrived in El Cajon and marked the city with a new “foreignness,” Chaldeans became a reminder of the Iraqi other against whom the United States was waging war.
In associating a loss of American culture with the growth of Chaldean businesses and Arabic signage in the city, Mayor Lewis is also making a claim as a spatial authority. Hage discusses racist violence in terms of spatial power, positing that such violence is better conceived of as nationalist practice that is informed by racism. This form of nationalist practice assumes three things: first, an image of a national space; second, an image of the nationalist himself as master of this national space; third, an image of the “ethnic/racial other” as a mere object within the national space.[xi]
Masters of the national space are able to invoke American culture in ways few non-whites can. Spatial managers not only feel like they belong to the nation, but that they have a right over it. Thus, as in the example above, a complaint about loss of American culture can only come from someone who feels they have a right to define and police that culture. Additionally, such claims can come from a feeling that migrants and refugees are advancing while things aren’t improving for white Americans, regardless of whether Chaldeans are actually economically better off. In this case, the lack of hope being distributed to white Americans creates a backlash against Chaldeans—both those who have lived in the city for decades and newcomers.
The following year, Mayor Lewis accused Chaldean refugees of abusing government benefits programs in an interview with The Progressive, an online magazine:
Lewis says some Chaldean schoolchildren who receive free lunches are “being picked up by Mercedes Benzes.” He adds: “First time, they come over here, it doesn’t take them too long to learn where all the freebies are at.” This, he says, causes “a lot of resentment in regard to veterans,” who ask, “Why can’t [the federal government] support veterans like they support minorities coming over here?”’[xii]
Lewis’s juxtaposition of Chaldean welfare abusers and suffering veterans signals the declining worth of Chaldean patriotism. Additionally, it elides the fact that many of the Chaldean migrants arriving post-2008 were able to do so based on their work for the U.S. military. Just as it was in their encounters with the U.S. military in Iraq, Chaldean identity remains unsettled and unsettling in the United States. American media employed Chaldean support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq to justify the war on humanitarian grounds, but Chaldean sacrifice for the U.S. military was erased from the narrative when refugees’ access to social services was perceived as somehow disadvantaging white veterans.
The controversy over Mayor Lewis’s comments also highlighted divisions within the Chaldean community. When I discussed the differences between the early waves of immigrants and recent refugees with a Chaldean priest, he told me:
The ones that came [in the 1980s and 1990s] were very hardworking and very respectful people . . . but the ones that have come more recently have been formed by war and they’re desperate . . . they come over here and they milk the welfare system . . . They’re not very respectful as far as etiquette goes, driving . . . they jaywalk . . . It’s kind of upset the local community. Not the same way as the Chaldeans who would come before. They’re two different breeds of Chaldeans.
The conscious differentiating between the “different breeds” of Chaldeans enables immigrants to distance themselves from “desperate” refugees. Earlier generations had been respected as hard-working members of the El Cajon community, and now they are associated with refugees who “milk the welfare system.” In that sense, Chaldean resettlement crushed the “good immigrant” aspirations of early migrants.
The Muslim Ban
In my interview with the Chaldean priest, he used jaywalking as an example of refugees’ disrespectful practices. Why is jaywalking offensive? The Chaldean jaywalker captures what Hage poses as the dilemma of migrant participatory belonging in their host society. Hage describes migration as a guilt-inducing process because leaving the “communal setting that has given us the gift of social life is precisely to refrain from paying the debt. But migration also involves receiving a new gift of social life.”[xiii] In the case of Chaldeans, the gift of social life in the United States was based on a debt accrued during war. But wartime debt is notoriously neglected, and Chaldeans were reminded of that again after President Donald Trump’s election.
As candidates hit the campaign trail for the 2016 presidential election, ISIS, Syria, and the refugee crisis became some of the biggest issues of the election. While Trump took a harsh stance on immigration, he also promised to prioritize admission for Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria. Given Trump’s support for Arab Christians and socially and economically conservative political beliefs, Chaldeans in Detroit and El Cajon generally supported him in the election. Church leaders urged worshippers to vote for him during Sunday services, and in Michigan, where Trump won by a narrow margin, the community’s support ended up being pivotal.
Despite this, Chaldean immigrants found themselves caught between his spoken support for Christian Iraqis and his commitments to the mostly white anti-immigrant voters who won him the election. On 27 January 2017, six days after taking office, President Trump signed Executive Order 13769, also known as the Muslim Ban. Six months later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested 114 Iraqi nationals living in the Detroit area, most of whom were Chaldean.
The arrests shocked the Chaldean community. While differentiating themselves from Iraqi Muslims in the visa campaign was advantageous, Chaldean gains through such methods proved limited with the Muslim Ban. In the wake of nationwide protests against the ban, Trump removed Iraq from the executive order after the Iraqi government agreed to reinstate repatriation of Iraqi nationals living in the United States. Trump was then able to order ICE arrests and immediate deportation of Iraqi nationals with outstanding removal orders. Many of those arrested were Chaldeans who had committed minor offenses and already paid their fines or served time. Additionally, many hadn’t been to Iraq in decades and spoke little or no Arabic. Others had served as translators and interpreters for the U.S. military. Their perceived Americanization in addition to their Christianity made Chaldeans set for deportation an especially vulnerable group.
Many of the ACLU’s Chaldean clients reported that ICE agents tried to convince them to sign forms agreeing to their voluntary deportation, denying them food, water, and access to the bathroom. Guards in the Aurora, CO facility used racial slurs like “camel jockey,” “rag head,” and “Al Qaeda” when referring to Iraqi detainees.[xiv] ICE agents also denied detainees’ families information about their arrests or location.
The racist treatment of Chaldean detainees and their families highlights the limits of Chaldean belonging in the United States. The slurs conflate Chaldeans with the “bad Muslims” they’ve worked to differentiate themselves from in U.S. encounters. The detention of Chaldean immigrants illustrates how quickly even the most loyal Iraqi immigrants can be rendered enemy aliens. Furthermore, the deportation orders, especially for those who served as interpreters in Iraq, underline the capricious nature of U.S. wartime obligations.
In many ways, Chaldeans exemplify the ideal U.S.-Middle East encounter. As a religious minority oppressed under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Chaldeans in the United States and Iraq were quick to aid the U.S. military as interpreters. As immigrants, they worked hard to establish businesses and help El Cajon’s economy grow. Additionally, their Christian faith marked them as a non-threatening refugee group. Such qualities enabled Chaldeans to successfully secure SIVs and refugee visas, reminding the United States of its debts to the group who supported the military during the Iraq war.
However, each encounter with the United States also reveals the limits of Chaldean possibilities. While they passed an SIV bill, the vetting process remains backlogged and slow, despite the fact that Iraqi interpreters had already been thoroughly vetted by the U.S. military before signing their employment contracts. Likewise, Chaldean refugee resettlement in El Cajon was met with xenophobic backlash from their white neighbors. These limits illuminate the lasting effects of U.S. imperialism and intervention in the Middle East.
Chaldeans remain foreign and unsettling to Americans. Although they supported the U.S. military, their Iraqiness marks them as a suspicious other, and their imperial condition also limits U.S. obligations to them. When U.S. debts to those affected by its imperial ambitions conflict with the hopes of its white citizens, U.S. humanitarianism breaks down and the debt is forgotten. The unique case of Chaldean resettlement in the United States highlights the shortcomings of Western nations’ handling of the current international refugee crisis. As Western nations debate the extent of their responsibility to resettle refugees, they must not neglect their obligations to those adversely affected by their interventionist policies.
[ii] Mary Louise Pratt, “Harm’s Way: Language and the Contemporary Arts of War,” PMLA 124, no. 5 (October 2009), p. 1527.
[iii] Gregg Krupa, “Chaldeans Reach Out to Refugees—Religious Minority in Iraq Has Allies in Metro Detroit,” The Detroit News, 14 April 2007.
[iv] Press release, Senator Edward Kennedy, “Kennedy, Smith, Brownback, Others Introduce Iraqi Refugee Legislation,” 7 December 2007, available at https://votesmart.org/public-statement/290519/kennedy-smith-brownback-others-introduce-iraqi-refugee-legislation#.Ws_o9dPwZ-U.
[v] U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “Hearing on Sectarian Violence in Iraq and the Refugee Crisis: Remarks by Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR),” 19 September 2007, http://www.uscirf.gov/countries-and-issues/iraq-press-releases/hearing-sectarian-violence-in-iraq-and-the-refugee-crisis-3.
[vi] U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Iraqi Refugee Processing Fact Sheet,” 6 June 2013, https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/refugees/iraqi-refugee-processing-fact-sheet.
[vii] Ghassan Hage, Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society (Annandale, Australia: Pluto Press, 2003), p. 15.
[viii] Ghassan Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (New York: Routledge, 2000): p. 53.
[ix] Asher Price, “Iraqi-Americans Rally in Support of U.S. Efforts,” San Diego Union-Tribune, 14 December 2003.
[x] Steve Schmidt, “Iraqi Catholics Adapt to America,” San Diego Union Tribune, 10 August 2010.
[xi] Hage, White Nation, p. 28.
[xii] Arun Gupta, “Little Baghdad, California,” The Progressive, 8 April 2013.
[xiii] Hage, Against Paranoid Nationalism, p. 100.
[xiv] Rebecca Wallace et al, “ICE is Abusing the ACLU’s Clients Because They are Fighting Trump’s Deportation Machine,” ACLU, 31 August 2017, https://www.aclu.org/blog/immigrants-rights/immigrants-rights-and-detention/ice-abusing-aclus-clients-because-they-are.