(RNS) – Kadhim Al-bumohammed, a 66-year-old Muslim refugee from Iraq who trained tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Arabic and Arab culture, walked out of an Albuquerque, New Mexico, church basement last week a free man.
Al-bumohammed had spent two years inside of First Congregational United Church of Christ seeking sanctuary from deportation.
On Wednesday (June 26), a U.S. Department of Justice immigration appeals panel removed his deportation order, and he was allowed to return to his Albuquerque home.
“Just this month we received word that the motion to reopen (his case) has been granted and the removal order has been vacated,” his attorney, Rebecca Kitson, said as she broke the news to a gathering of about 200 supporters at the church. “So Kadhim is free to leave sanctuary.”
The ruling allows Al-bumohammed to reapply for permanent residence through his son and wife, who are both U.S. citizens, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.
For two years, volunteers from the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice, which advocated on Al-bumohammed’s behalf, stayed at the church around the clock to stand as witnesses in case U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents entered to detain him.
“Being underground for two years is so hard,” Al-bumohammed said in a statement. “I used to be (there) for my kids … almost two years I have not gone out or seen the sun.”
During that time, he lamented, he had missed several major family events: two graduations, one son’s wedding and another son’s funeral.
Al-bumohammed had been asked to come to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in July 2017 for a special check-in, several months ahead of his regularly scheduled annual check-in. There, his legal team expected, he would be detained due to a deportation order stemming from two misdemeanor convictions in the ’90s.
But when he showed up for his appointment with ICE, an outpouring of support by more than 200 community members forced the office to shut down operations and cancel the meeting.
“Justice for Kadhim!” people chanted, holding up signs to support him: “Honor loyal service. Don’t deport,” and “Kadhim helped our troops. Now it’s our turn to help Kadhim!”
When he was next ordered to turn himself in to a federal immigration office, his lawyer instead offered ICE a letter stating that her client decided to seek sanctuary “with the faith community.”
Kitson said Al-bumohammed’s military service on behalf of the U.S. — which included work for all four branches of the military and earned him more than 15 medals — left him at serious risk of being imprisoned or even killed if deported back to Iraq.
“American soldiers have told me that the training I gave them saved their lives,” Al-bumohammed said in 2017. “I fear if I am deported my life is at risk. I don’t understand how this can be happening.”
He first stayed at the Albuquerque Friends Meeting House, a Quaker church, then at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, where he lived for two years with his wife and daughter.
Immigration officials usually do not make arrests in “sensitive locations” such as schools, hospitals and churches. A so-called New Sanctuary Movement of faith groups has sought to take advantage of this federal guideline by housing immigrants at risk of deportation.
“It takes a village to be able to do this,” Kitson said. “ … I just hope that this brings light into the heart of those that are still in sanctuary, knowing that the fight continues and that sometimes you win.”
Al-bumohammed came to the U.S. in 1994 as a refugee, fearing retaliation for his support of the U.S. during the first Gulf War. He then worked for five years at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, where he offered soldiers deploying to Iraq cultural and linguistic training.
While in California, two years after arriving in the U.S., Al-bumohammed was convicted and served a sentence on two counts of misdemeanor domestic violence charges in California.
The resulting immigration proceedings led to a 2010 order of deportation. The U.S. did not then deport Iraqi immigrants, however, and he was simply required to check in with authorities annually. But in 2017 Iraq agreed to take deported Iraqis in exchange for not being included in the White House’s controversial travel ban.
Al-bumohammed was one of an estimated 1,400 Iraqi nationals facing deportation under the agreement, according the ACLU, which filed a class-action lawsuit to halt the proceedings.
Now, advocates are crowdfunding to support his transition back to normalcy.