Clutching rosaries, posters reading â€œDonâ€™t jail Christians,â€ and religious images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, members of San Diegoâ€™s Chaldean community Thursday sought to call attention to the plight of 27 Iraqi Christians being held at the Otay Detention Center.
The group of about 30 demonstrators assembled for an hourlong prayer service outside the detention center in support of the Christians, who were detained by immigration authorities after they attempted to cross the U.S. border from Mexico without documentation several months ago.
Iraqi Christians, also known as Chaldeans, have been fleeing escalating persecution in the Middle East at the hands of the Islamic State terrorist group for about two years. The countryâ€™s Christian population has declined markedly since the Iraq War began in 2003.
The 27 immigrants who were detained are in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as their asylum cases proceed.
Family members and activists say theyâ€™ve been given little details as to why theyâ€™ve been detained for so long, despite being refugees from Middle East terror.
â€œWeâ€™re asking for answers and weâ€™re asking for an explanation,â€ said Mark Arabo, a spokesman for the local Chaldean community and president of the Neighborhood Market Association.
â€œThese arenâ€™t people who just decided to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. These are people saying, â€˜we have nowhere else to go.â€™â€
Arabo said that with immigration processing completely shut down in Iraq, refugees have no legal way of coming to the United States. Many of them flee to other countries first and then make their way to Mexico to cross the border.
â€œThere is no other way,â€ Arabo said.
Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for ICE, confirmed that there are 27 Iraqi nationals in ICE custody at the facility but said she couldnâ€™t comment on individual immigration cases without the detaineesâ€™ written consent.
Mack said that generally, once a credible fear claim is established â€” meaning a person is afraid to return to his or her country for a specific reason â€” ICE determines whether that individual will remain in custody or be put on parole.
The time a detainee spends in custody is determined by a variety of factors, Mack said. They include the personâ€™s conviction record, immigration history, ties to the community, risk of flight, and whether he or she poses a potential threat to public safety.
Arabo said that of the 27 Iraqi immigrants in custody, 20 have contacted his organization for help. He said they have relatives in San Diego County who are willing to be their sponsors, which typically allows asylum seekers to be released as their cases proceed.
Itâ€™s unclear why the detainees who have family members in the region remain in custody.
The story of the 27 Chaldeans is similar to the tens of thousands of Christians who are fleeing Syria and Iraq in large numbers, fearing deadly persecution by the Islamic State, in what some religious leaders are calling a genocide.
Islamic State persecution has brought devastation to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Refugees have fled to other countries, seeking safe haven.
A report by the Center for American Progress on the plight of Christians in the Middle East found that some Christian communities in the region may eventually die out.
â€œIf one of the most important religious groups in the world continues to be forced out of the Middle East, this bodes negatively for pluralism, tolerance, and the ability of the regionâ€™s people to live interlinked with the rest of the world,â€ the report said.
East County is home to tens of thousands of Chaldeans. Most came as refugees during and after the Iraq War, drawn by the weather, and to follow early settlers.
Thursdayâ€™s prayer service was led by local clergy members, in what organizers said was a â€œlast ditch pleaâ€ for the release of the men and women being detained. The refugees survived the Islamic State only to land in a prison elsewhere, they said.
Waheed Butrus of El Cajon said he attended the event to call for the release of his son-in-law and granddaughter, who have been detained for about six months.
Butrus, 61, said heâ€™s unsure of why theyâ€™ve been held at the prison for so long. He visits them on the weekends.
â€œIâ€™m very sad. I think about them every day,â€ he said through a translator. â€œItâ€™s an injustice.â€