Trump Cracks Down on Refugees in Nashville's Little Kurdistan


Armed men pull Shevan Arif and his family over at a busy intersection, asking questions and demanding to see IDs. Bystander cellphone video captures Arif nervously shaking his head and pleading with the two men, who mill around and make phone calls. They aren't local police, and they're evasive when he asks if he's under arrest. Eventually, they realize Arif isn't the person they're looking for, and drive off without explanation.

This would be a fairly ordinary—though still terrifying—encounter in much of the developing world. What's remarkable is that it took place in Nashville, Tennessee, as part of a massive immigration sweep that began this June. And the targets are members of a persecuted community who thought they had found safety in America.

When the Trump administration unveiled the second version of its travel ban in March, there was a curious difference from the first one. Iraq, which had originally been one of seven Muslim-majority countries whose citizens were deemed too dangerous to enter the United States, was now off the list. The Islamic State (ISIS) hadn't been expelled from Iraq in the intervening month; rather, the change was a result of some behind-the-scenes politicking.

In exchange for Trump lifting the entry ban on Iraqi citizens, the Iraqi government agreed to issue papers that would allow the U.S. to deport people back to that country. For years, it had been nearly impossible for U.S. immigration authorities to deport Iraqi nationals, as Iraq just wouldn't accept them—and for good reason. Despite brief lulls in the violence, Iraq has been in a state of civil war more or less since the American-led invasion toppled its government in 2003.

Though the travel ban's legality is now being disputed before the Supreme Court, the deal with Iraq still stands. So the federal government has begun rounding up Iraqi nationals with removal orders, including some who have lived in America for years, building families and careers.

Almost three months after the U.S.–Iraq deal was made, a weeklong immigration sweep hit the Kurdish-American community in Nashville without warning. Alleged civil liberties violations and ethnic profiling shook the community, known locally as Little Kurdistan. But the potential future consequences of the sweep are even worse: Since most Kurds came to Nashville fleeing oppression, their deportation to Iraq would likely amount to a death sentence.

Little Kurdistan, Tennessee The history of Little Kurdistan, like that of Kurdistan proper, features a series of betrayals by the U.S. government. An estimated 28 million people across the Middle East speak Kurdish, but Nashville is mostly populated by Iraqi Kurds, who have had a tumultuous relationship with the United States.

The first wave of Kurdish immigration to Nashville came in 1975, according to Kani Xulam, founder of the American Kurdish Information Network. That year, the shah of Iran (then a U.S. ally) and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein signed an agreement in Algiers that ended Iranian and American support for Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, allowing Hussein to crush the rebellion without opposition. Some 200,000 people were displaced in the aftermath.

Hussein Bazirki was one of those who fled after the U.S. cut off support. Thousands of less fortunate Iraqi Kurds were killed by the Iraqi army. Bazirki says he would have been hanged had he remained in Iraq.

The Nixon administration seemed unwilling to deal with the consequences of giving and then suddenly pulling back support for these rebels. ("Promise [Kurds] anything," Secretary of State Henry Kissinger infamously said, "give them what they get, and fuck them if they can't take a joke.") A year later, a congressional investigation unveiled America's broken promises.

Diplomatic official Sue Patterson told the Foreign Affairs Oral History Project in a 1989 interview that she noticed that an increasing number of Kurdish refugees were asking for asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in the late 1970s. After reading leaked proceedings of the congressional investigation in The Village Voice, she recognized that her own government was responsible for the uptick, and she pushed for the United States to begin accepting Kurdish migrants from Iraq.

Many of the refugees, including Bazirki, settled in Nashville. There were no established Kurdish communities in America at the time, so people like him had the difficult task of laying down roots not just for their families but for their entire ethnic group. A resettlement organization got Bazirki a job, but learning English was an obstacle, made more difficult by the lack of Kurdish speakers in Tennessee at the time.

Nevertheless, he is proud to have made a life in America, and he says that others of his generation feel the same way.

Almost two decades after Bazirki's journey, Drost Kokoye was born in Halabja. This border town had suffered gas attacks by Saddam Hussein (then backed by the U.S.) during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Kokoye, now a part of the American Muslim Advisory Council and one of the Kurdish-American community's most vocal advocates, left Kurdistan with her family in 1994, after work they did for the U.S. government around the time of the Persian Gulf War was revealed, exposing them to potential reprisals.

Kokoye's family first settled in a refugee camp in what she calls "Turkish-occupied Kurdistan," where several refugees died from the dismal conditions. They were later flown to Guam. The island territory may have been chosen in part to protect the Clinton administration from embarrassment during an election year, Xulam speculates, because the government didn't want Kurds speaking to the media about America's failure to protect its allies.

Kokoye's family was eventually resettled in Phoenix, Arizona. Despite some initial help from nongovernmental organizations, they underwent many of the same challenges Bazirki had, living in an unfamiliar city where no one spoke their language. But the family soon learned from relatives back home that by this time, there was an established Kurdish community in Tennessee.

"Once we heard about that community, we basically packed up everything we had in Phoenix," Kokoye says. "We've called Nashville home ever since."

Life as a "marginalized group" in the South "came with different attacks and persecutions," Kokoye says, "but we've made a nice little community for ourselves." She adds that "it's a lot nicer to be here together as a part of Little Kurdistan than to be anywhere else."

Like other immigrant groups in America, the Nashville Kurds founded businesses, went to school, started families, and participated in the local community. Kokoye proudly describes the Kurdish establishments that have sprung up around Nashville over the past few decades. She says that Mayor Megan Barry is a regular fixture at the Salahadeen Center, a Kurdish-speaking mosque and community center.

Kurds contribute to Tennessee in intangible ways as well. Immigrant communities showcase their culture during the annual Celebrate Nashville festival, and the Kurdish representatives are known for a dance performance that often gets enthusiastic audience participation.

"We've been here for a long time," Kokoye says. "The community knows us, and we love the community."

Knock-and-Talk Unfortunately, the Nashville Kurds' willingness to contribute to their community has exposed them to an unexpected danger. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are not local police, but they carry equipment—such as bulletproof vests featuring the word police in large capital letters—that can give that impression. This distinction became crucial when ICE began its sweep in early June.

Although the agency began by looking for specific people, ICE eventually started going door-to-door asking questions of random households in the Kurdish community, according to Kokoye. The agents didn't have warrants, but—eager to help law enforcement and unaware of the stakes—many Kurds unwittingly welcomed immigration authorities into their homes.

People "open the door to try to go through with what they think these agents want, because they think they're police officers," Kokoye explains. "Because of that, we already have 12 community members who are sitting in a detention center in Alabama right now, none of whom ICE actually had a court-issued warrant for."

ICE spokesman Thomas Byrd says via email that the agency "arrested 11 individuals that had prior orders of removals from an immigration judge" in the city.

Andrew Free is a Nashville lawyer representing many of the people who were targeted. In the middle of our first phone conversation, he suddenly interrupted with, "I've gotta go. There's been another detention."

When we resumed the next day, he told me that agents have used "illegal ruses," such as telling people under orders of supervision that they had a new officer to check in with. People who might not have consented to a warrantless search otherwise were led to believe that they had a legal obligation to resolve.

Byrd denies this: "ICE does not use deceptive tactics to make entry into an individual's residence," he says.

Apart from the alleged Fourth Amendment violations, Free says that the campaign of "knock-and-talk" visits on an entire community is legally dicey due to its potential to be deemed ethnic and religious profiling.

The Nashville Kurds, a Muslim-majority community, have experienced prejudice for their religion before. A yearslong controversy around the nearby Murfreesboro Islamic Center sparked plenty of anti-Muslim rhetoric directed at the Kurdish community. In light of this history, the sight of federal agents going door-to-door is especially charged.

Moreover, the immigration sweep came during Ramadan, a lunar month in which Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex during daylight hours. It's a physically and mentally taxing time even without every knock on the door bringing potential legal trouble.

Rusty Russell/Getty

Kokoye says that attendance for Ramadan services has plummeted at the Salahadeen Center. There haven't been any reports of ICE detaining people there, but it wouldn't be unprecedented. In February, immigration agents arrested and interrogated several homeless Hispanic men as they were leaving a church in Alexandria, Virginia.

Free says that some of his clients in detention were pressured into signing documents facilitating their own deportations. He also claimed on Twitter that two of his clients were assaulted by agents in detention.

ICE officials have played fast and loose with civil rights on the streets as well. The video showing agents stopping Shevan Arif and interrogating him on the side of the road was posted to The Tennessean's website as part of a report on the city's reaction to the crackdown. Free explains that ICE claims the authority to pull over people suspected of being "removable"—foreign nationals who should be removed from the country under Title 8 of the U.S. Code—but Arif was a U.S. citizen who hadn't committed any crimes.

The person taking the cellphone video can be heard asking someone else to get Free on the phone.

What happened next was very "constitutionally suspect," according to Free. After seeing Arif's ID and confirming that he's a U.S. citizen, the agents continued to question him and demanded access to his cellphone. Kokoye, who spoke to Arif afterward, says the agents were evasive when he asked if he was free to go, and only gave his ID back when he said he would get his lawyer to "clear things up." All this occurred while the driver was on the way home from work, with his 9- and 2-year-old children sitting in the car.

"They prolonged the stop in order to conduct an investigative detention," Free explains. Such stops "have been rejected by the Supreme Court."

Asked by The Tennessean, Byrd denied that ICE uses random stops or checkpoints.

That incident and others like it sparked a debate in Nashville over whether ICE agents should identify themselves as police. In a letter sent to ICE during the sweep and posted online, Mayor Barry publicly criticized agents for using a symbol "which most in the community assume to mean the Metro Nashville Police Department." She claims it undermines the city's efforts to build relationships with local immigrant groups and specifically cites a video of agents stopping a "Kurdish-American citizen" while dressed in police vests.

ICE, meanwhile, defends its use of the word police on its agents' clothing, claiming that it is a "universally recognizable" symbol for law enforcement.

The growing mistrust of local institutions runs deeper than just police officers. After immigration agents arrested a Honduran man at a Nashville courthouse where he was appearing on charges of driving without a license, immigrants across the city have been afraid to show up to their court dates, The Tennessean reports.

Because several Kurdish political parties and militias are cooperating with the international coalition against the Islamic State, a new wave of Kurds has had to flee their homeland. Since the rise of ISIS in 2014, at least 6,332 Special Immigrant Visas have been issued to Iraqis who worked with U.S. forces and their dependents, according to the State Department; although it's not clear how many are Kurds, The Tennessean reports that many have joined the Kurdish community in Nashville.

It's now increasingly important for the city to find a way to integrate its immigrants.

'When They Grow Up, It's Something Different' Part of the reason Nashville's Kurdish community has come under attack since June involves a conflict that both the immigrants and the city thought they had moved past years ago.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly complained about crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, and as a result, ICE may have seen former members of the Kurdish Pride Gang as an easy political target. Like many other ethnic gangs, this one was formed by young Kurds to defend their community against rampant crime and violence. Eventually, they turned to crime themselves.

"They were living in certain areas of the city where police wouldn't go. It wasn't the safest time in Nashville," Kokoye explains. So about a decade ago, "members of our community took on the initiative to provide protection for our community, the same way we saw other marginalized communities do…From there, a lot of those guys did get caught up in trouble."

A string of burglaries were allegedly carried out by the Kurdish Pride Gang in 2007, and members of the group were later accused of two rapes and an attempted murder. Only 20 or 30 people were committing the crimes, but the events hurt the community's attempts to integrate into Nashville.

While it doesn't excuse violent crime, it is worth repeating that many Nashville Kurds came to America fleeing genocide and civil war. Those who came as children would have grown up against a backdrop of constant violence; Kokoye writes on her blog that her father's soccer games in Iraq were often interrupted by deadly air raids. Many members of the Kurdish Pride Gang may have been reacting to external danger in the only way they knew at the time.

The Kurdish Pride Gang was a problem limited in both scale and duration. Membership had fallen to the single digits by 2013, which Vocativ attributes to injunctions filed by the city preventing gang members from gathering. Kurdish-American leaders likely played a large role as well.

"None of the people in the Kurdish community like this happening, and they advise their kids, they advise their sons and daughters, to not violate the laws," Nawzad Hawrami, the director of the Salahadeen Center, told The New York Times.

The gang seems to have been completely inactive for years now. Former members "have served their time, done their community service hours, and are basically mentors for our kids growing up now on what not to do," Kokoye says. Several "serve as leaders in our communities," she adds. "They're business owners. They're fathers."

"I wasted too much time with that foolishness, man," Ako Hassan Nejad, who was convicted of attempted murder in 2008, told The Tennessean in 2012. "Now it's time to kind of go the other way."

Bazirki, who survived a civil war a generation before most Kurdish Pride Gang members were born, opposes their deportation. "I don't think it's right, even if they had some law problems before," he says. "All the teenagers, they go against the law, but when they grow up, it's something different."

Many people with criminal records did not attempt to fight their removal orders, according to Free, because they were told at the time that deportation to Iraq was impossible and that signing away their rights would get them out of detention without a legal battle. He says that he is now attempting to reopen some of these cases.

Most were put under orders of supervision, meaning that they had to show up for yearly or biannual check-ins with an immigration agent. Because of this, in fact, ICE already knew the whereabouts of many of the people it targeted with raids and could have contacted them easily.

"These are not people who are trying to run from any sort of responsibility that they have," Kokoye says.

Indeed, several Kurds in Atlanta voluntarily turned themselves in when ICE reached out to them, according to Free. The same happened in Nashville after word got out that ICE was looking for people under deportation orders.

"You've got the United States government spending $160 a night per person to detain people," he says, "and you're spending probably tens of thousands of dollars on administratively uncontrolled overtime for agents who are spending two weeks here in Nashville to find these people, when it wasn't hard to find them."

Free claims that many of his clients would have gladly bought a ticket themselves to Erbil, the largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan, if they were given a chance to get their affairs in order. Instead, they will be deported to Baghdad, a city they have no connection to, without adequate protection.

Khaalid H. Wells, a spokesman for ICE, writes that the agency "focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security." But the people arrested so far are petty criminals.

Sarkaut Taro, who fled to America in 2002 after Saddam Hussein's forces killed three of his brothers, was under a removal order because he was convicted of selling alcohol to minors more than 10 years ago.

On June 9, he was arrested with a 6 a.m. knock on the door.

A Death Sentence Taro's wife has told multiple media outlets that she fears returning to Iraq puts him in danger. Unfortunately, the same seems to be true for most other Kurdish deportees as well.

Taro is a filmmaker who has publicly criticized both ISIS and the Iraqi government, and many other Nashville Kurds are similarly politically engaged. Some of Free's clients believe they will be tortured if sent back to Iraq.

ICE refused to tell me where deportees will be sent ("for security reasons"), but deportation flights so far have been headed to Baghdad. The European Court of Human Rights has previously blocked deportations to Iraq specifically because of mistreatment of Kurds in Baghdad's airport, and many Kurds don't even consider themselves Iraqi. For the Nashville Kurds, many of whom don't speak Arabic and some of whom have lived in America since childhood, this would be a dangerous situation even without a war.

Imagine dropping an American with no knowledge of the language into the middle of Iraq. Kokoye says that it would take a "miracle" for a Kurdish-speaking deportee to make it from Baghdad to Kurdistan alive.

And although the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government may be able to provide some safety, there is little guarantee. Parts of the region are currently controlled by ISIS. Furthermore, the political histories of some Nashville Kurds could make them targets in the escalating clashes between Kurdish strongman Messûd Barzanî and his rivals, the Kurdistan Workers Party.

A planned Kurdish independence referendum in September could complicate matters more. If a secession crisis breaks out—which it might, since the Iraqi government says it won't recognize the vote's legitimacy—it will get even less safe for Kurdish deportees in Baghdad. On the other hand, if the Republic of Kurdistan successfully becomes a new nation-state, it's unclear which citizenships the Nashville Kurds will have.

The Kurdistan Regional Government expressed "concern" over the deportations through its diplomatic mission in Washington, according to Rûdaw News. And over a hundred Iraqi members of parliament signed a resolution calling for their government to block further deportations after British officials allegedly left a Kurdish deportee named Aras Ismail handcuffed and hooded in an airplane bathroom for five hours.

Other Iraqi minority groups in America face similar dangers. The Washington Post reports that a charter flight carrying six deportees landed in Baghdad this April after a sweep against the Chaldean and Assyrian community in Detroit. These indigenous Iraqi Christians have faced a "genocide," according to the U.S. government, and many activists complain that returning them to Iraq puts their lives in danger. Magistrate Eman H. Jajonie-Daman of the 46th District Court–Southfield told The Washington Post that a pair of Chaldean brothers deported in 2010 were rumored to have been kidnapped.

After the Detroit sweep, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the removals. A federal judge granted a two-week stay on June 22, giving Iraqi nationals time to challenge their deportations.

And yet even if no more removals take place, the ICE operations have reopened old wounds and damaged Nashville's social fabric. "It's ravaging the sense of safety that we have," Kokoye says. "There's no security."

A seemingly minor compromise in a controversial immigration policy has dangled a Damocles' sword over the heads of Americans who have been here just long enough to feel comfortable in their communities, thrusting them into a process fraught with legal gray areas and outright civil liberties violations.

"As a civil libertarian, as someone who thinks the government has limited power, people should be worried about that," Free says, "because it doesn't stop here."