An Iraqi man who fled to the U.S. during the Gulf War and trained tens of thousands of American soldiers is facing deportation orders that could lead to his death in his homeland, his supporters say.
Kadhim Al-bumohammed, 64, decided to seek refuge Thursday inside a New Mexico church. He announced through his attorney that he would defy a federal immigration order to appear for a hearing where he was expected to be detained for deportation over a domestic-violence conviction in California.
"After consulting with his family, and with other members of the faith community, (Al-bumohammed) has chosen to seek sanctuary with the faith community," Rebecca Kitson, his lawyer, said to a cheering crowd outside Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Albuquerque.
Immigration officials typically don't make deportation arrests in churches and other "sensitive areas" such as schools and churches.
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In a statement, ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said Al-bumohammed was convicted in San Diego, California, in 1996 of a assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest in 1994.
Al-bumohammed also was convicted of domestic violence in Merced County, California, in 1997, which made him eligible for deportation under U.S. law, Rusnok said.
"(Al-bumohammed) has been on an order of supervision with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement since about 2010," Rusnok said. "Since he did not appear for a scheduled July 13 ICE appointment, he is currently an ICE fugitive."
Kitson said there is no evidence that Al-bumohammed assaulted an officer and that case is one of mistaken identity. "Nowhere is that in his file in the lower courts. It is not mentioned," Kitson said. "I find it interesting that it is coming up now."
Al-bumohammed, who arrived as a refugee in 1994, worked as a linguist contractor with all four branches of the U.S. military from 2004 to 2009 in Fort Irwin, California. Al-bumohammed trained tens of thousands of soldiers in his five years and earned more than 15 medals for his service, Kitson said.
He fled following the first U.S. war with Iraq with Saddam Hussein still in power because he feared persecution for assisting U.S.-led coalition forces.
Supporters say the father of four U.S. children will face death if he's deported because of his connection to the U.S. military.
His case has drawn support from religious leaders, immigrant advocates and U.S. military veterans who have attended rallies and events on his behalf.
Monique Salhab, an Albuquerque resident who served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006 and in 2008 to 2009 with the U.S. Army Military Police, was one of many veterans to express dismay as Al-bumohammed's possible deportation.
"How can our country repay loyal service like this?" Salhab asked.
Al-bumohammed is one of the 1,400 Iraqis under deportation orders in the U.S. Some, like Al-bumohammed, have faced the orders for years because they committed crimes. His conviction involved his ex-wife and he later won full custody of his children.
A federal judge this week halted the deportation of Iraqi nationals like Al-bumohammed, including many Christians fearing persecution, while courts review the orders to remove them from the U.S.
But his lawyer said immigration authorities could have still detained Al-bumohammed and placed him at a facility in El Paso, Texas, while the class-action lawsuit made it through the court system.
Kitson said she would inform federal immigration authorities of his whereabouts but not disclose it publicly. Al-bumohammed, who faces a number of health problems, sought refuge because he has "lost faith" in the ability of the U.S. government to protect him, she said.
In a letter to acting ICE director Thomas Homan, Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester pleaded that Al-bumohammed be allowed to stay in the U.S. based on his service with the military and his health problems.
"Due to his service with the US military, leading Cultural and Linguistics training with his wife, deportation to Iraq puts him at great risk of torture and even death," Wester wrote.
His daughter, Courtney Al-bumohammed, 17, said that for now she was happy that her father wouldn't be detained and leave her family.
"I just want him to be a dad," she said. "I'm going to visit him often."