A former campaign adviser to Donald Trump is offering to testify in court on behalf of Iraqi Christians in the United States who suddenly face deportation under the Republican president — for a hefty fee.
Walid Phares, a Lebanese-American academic, advised Trump on foreign affairs during the 2016 presidential campaign. He also has appeared on the Fox News and Fox Business channels to promote Trump’s national security policies, including the travel bans that would temporarily bar Iraqi Christian refugees, among others, from U.S. soil.
At the same time, Phares charges unusually high fees — up to $15,000 or more, according to lawyers — to testify in immigration proceedings about the dangers facing people deported to Iraq, where Christians and others with U.S. ties are often killed.
Activists who work with Iraqis in the U.S. are questioning Phares’ dual role as an advocate of Trump’s harsher immigration policies and a defender of those who are being affected. Some critics point out that the main reason Iraqis in America are now subject to deportation is because of the fallout from the Trump travel bans that Phares has supported.
“This is a monster that he was part of creating, and now he’s asking people for thousands of dollars to help protect them from it,” said Steve Oshana, executive director of A Demand for Action, a group that helps Christians in the Middle East. “It’s a shame. It’s taking advantage of people when they’re at their most vulnerable.”
Phares, who would respond only to written questions, said in an email that his support for Trump was strictly about foreign policy and national security, not domestic issues — implying that deportations fall under the latter.
“Now, some individuals asked me if I could serve as an expert witness — not on deportation itself, nor on the aforesaid [travel] ban, but on ‘country conditions in Iraq.’ These are two distinct subjects,” Phares wrote. “Hypocrisy is when political critics attack my professional expertise while invoking non-existent links to my political opinion, which, by the way, they describe falsely.”
In January, Phares went on television to defend Trump’s initial travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq. He stressed the importance of having strict vetting before accepting immigrants or travelers from the countries in question because of the presence of Islamist extremists.
“What is happening right now is a choice,” Phares said on Fox News after the first version of the travel ban was issued. “Either we maintain the policy of the previous administration, the Obama administration with jihadism growing all over the region … or we want to change.”
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated that the United States believes the Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim terrorist group, is responsible for genocide against Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Muslims and other groups in Iraq and Syria. Vice President Mike Pence has also made similar statements.
Such declarations are one reason Iraqis in the United States are stunned that people in their community could now be sent back to Iraq under Trump. Iraqi Christians in particular were major supporters of Trump in 2016, including in swing states like Michigan, which has a large population of people with roots in the Middle East.
The Iraqis now facing deportation include Chaldean Christians, Kurds, Muslims and others who were ordered removed many years ago, but who could not be deported because Iraq would not take them. Many of the potential deportees had committed crimes years before, but had lived largely quiet lives since. Some barely speak Arabic.
Phares’ willingness to defend both Trump and the potential deportees also has jarred Christian community activists and others because of what he is charging.
A Michigan lawyer with clients considering using Phares told POLITICO that for written testimony, Phares is charging $5,000. For in-person and written testimony combined, he’s asking for at least $15,000. If Phares can testify via video or telephone, he’ll offer that and a written submission for $10,000, the lawyer said on condition of anonymity.
Community activists and other attorneys said they’d heard similar figures from families mulling hiring Phares. An email from a law firm shared with POLITICO also appeared to confirm the $5,000 fee for Phares’ written report.
The Michigan lawyer and other legal experts contacted by POLITICO said Phares’ fees were unusually steep. In most such cases, experts are willing to offer testimony without charge, or for a few hundred or few thousand dollars, the legal experts said. Many of the affected Iraqi families can barely afford basic legal representation.
“I’d say, for verbal, several thousand dollars would be on the high end for in-person testimony,” said Heather Prendergast, who chairs an American Immigration Lawyers Association committee that meets with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Phares dismissed concerns about his fees. “I offer specific fees, calculated on my time/effort, and individuals who seek me can either accept or reject it. That’s how all experts operate,” he wrote.
Phares’ defenders argue that there is a logic to his approach: whether he is agreeing that the U.S. needs to restrict immigration from Iraq or saying it shouldn’t deport people there, he’s ultimately saying Iraq is a dangerous place.
Martin Manna, president of the Michigan-based Chaldean Community Foundation, noted that Phares has offered expert testimony in the courts for many years.
“We did some research and he’s been successful for many people, for Christians and Muslims,” Manna said. He added that he’d seen Phares testify in a case on Tuesday and that his support for Trump didn’t come up. Rather, his testimony was about the conditions in Iraq and “the genocide that’s been taking place.”
But others said that even if he doesn’t mention his past relationship with Trump himself, Phares has benefited from the belief of people desperate to stay in the U.S. that his involvement in their cases might give them an edge.
“He’s trading on the illusion of access,” said one attorney familiar with the deportation cases. “People have said to me, ‘We could hire Walid Phares.’ They think because he’s Walid Phares, because he was tied in with Trump, that his word will carry some weight. People think that he has influence on how things come out.”
A Maronite Christian born in Lebanon, Phares has established himself as a conservative foreign policy analyst with a special focus on radical Islam. He’s taught at institutions such as the National Defense University. He also advised Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign.
A Mother Jones investigation in 2011 alleged that, during the 1980s, Phares was involved in the ideological training of Christian militias that fought in Lebanon’s civil war. Phares, the magazine reported, pushed for the creation of a separate Christian enclave in the region.
Phares, who moved to the United States in 1990, has downplayed his role in the Lebanese conflict, insisting he was never a military official and was “politically in the center” when it came to Lebanese Christian groups.
After Trump won the November election, Phares downplayed fears about the incoming president’s immigration policies. The deportation of any particular community, Phares said in an Arabic-language interview with the Elaph Journal, “does not exist in American political culture.”
But not long after taking office in January, Trump set in motion a more aggressive deportation policy that effectively eliminated distinctions about which groups of people should be prioritized for removal from the country.
Around the same time, Trump — who during the campaign called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States — issued an executive order that temporarily barred immigrants and visitors from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Somalia. That travel ban also temporarily halted the resettlement of all refugees, including Middle Eastern Christians fleeing Islamist extremists.
The courts blocked that first travel ban, so Trump drew up a second one with many of the same elements, including blocking all refugees. But the second executive order didn’t include a ban on immigrants and travelers from Iraq, a key U.S. counterterrorism partner.
To get off the list, the government of Iraq had to agree to certain conditions — including accepting deportees from the United States.
In June, the results of that decision became clear for Iraqis in the United States who suddenly found themselves the targets of deportation raids.
The second travel ban has been partially blocked by the courts; the Supreme Court is due to review it in the coming months. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has legally challenged the deportation of the Iraqis, citing the dangers they face if sent back to Iraq.
Last month, a federal judge in Michigan halted the removals of some 1,400 Iraqis across the United States. The judge gave the Iraqis more time to make their cases to immigration courts, where people like Phares can testify on their behalf.
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