If the presidential election in Michigan emerges as a close contest, Martin Manna knows of a somewhat overlooked bloc of voters that could sway the outcome – the Detroit area’s large Chaldean community.
An estimated 160,000 Chaldeans – Iraqi-American Christians – live in Macomb and Oakland counties, according to Manna, a longtime activist in that community. That represents a trove of voters larger than the population of 71 of Michigan’s 83 counties.
“The Chaldean community is up for grabs,” said Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation based in Sterling Heights. “I’ve never seen such enthusiasm about an election.”
Chaldeans and other Iraqi Christians may have played a major factor, under the radar of pollsters, in Donald Trump’s 2016 squeaker, when he won Michigan by 10,704 votes. Most Chaldeans are apparently backed Trump.
With less than six weeks before the 2020 election, President Trump seems to have the upper hand despite moves early in his presidency to deport 1,400 Iraqis, many from Metro Detroit. During a campaign stop in Warren last January, Trump vowed that those facing forced removal would get "an extension." The promised reprieve remains in limbo.
Shadow of deportations
Former Vice President Joe Biden also has his supporters within this ethnic community, but he appears to be Plan B for voters disillusioned by Trump.
“There are Chaldeans who are upset over the deportation issue, and there are others who will not vote for the Democratic Party,” said Mary Romaya, a retired Warren Woods Public Schools history teacher and former executive director of the Chaldean Cultural Center in West Bloomfield.
Chaldeans are overwhelmingly Catholic and strongly pro-life on the abortion issue. They are generally conservative, with an emphasis on “family values.” Many run small family businesses, and that entrepreneurial spirit draws them to a businessman like Trump.
The many registration drives in this tight-knit immigrant community over the past three years are now morphing into high-energy, get-out-the-vote efforts. In Macomb, much of the Chaldean population lives not far from the Dequindre Road border, particularly in Warren and Sterling Heights. In neighboring Oakland County, they’re centered in Troy and the Bloomfields.
Chaldeans began settling in the Detroit area in 1950, and their ranks grew dramatically after the Gulf War in 1991 and the onset of the Iraq War in 2003. In the mid-1980s, Sterling Heights had about 400 Chaldean-Americans. It's now estimated to have more than 30,000.
Trump reached out to Chaldeans this year when he chose one of their own, Oakland Circuit Judge Hala Jourba, to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. She was confirmed Sept. 10 by the Senate, becoming the country's first Chaldean federal judge.
Ready to forgive president
Voters in this bloc appear willing to set aside Trump’s push for deportations, which created a fury in 2017-19.
“Everyone I know – friends, family, members of my church parish – they are all still pro-Trump. There may be even stronger support for the president out there in our community than in 2016,” said Sue Kattula, a member of the Sterling Heights Ethnic Committee.
She's among politically active Chaldeans who've stepped up to run for office in recent years, a sharp departure from the past. She was first elected in 2004 to the Warren Consolidated school board in one of the state's largest districts, and she’s up for a fourth term in November.
Trump initially misunderstood the religious persecution Chaldeans would face if sent back to Iraq, Kattulah said, plus the fact that they face barriers to U.S. citizenship. The president has reversed course, she added, while demonstrating that global religious freedom is an administration priority.
“It’s in the past,” said Romaya.
But Manna is in the camp that demands Trump follow through quickly on putting a stop to the prospect of future ICE deportations by invoking a process known as “deferred enforced departure.” Manna, who regularly communicates with the White House, said the president’s words at that January stop at a Warren auto parts factory were concise.
“We’ve been told relief from deportation is coming before the election,” he said. “The president made a promise and we want to see him fulfill it.”