President Trump heard on a flight to Michigan for a speech Thursday about the resurgent auto industry that his administration is deporting hundreds of the state’s Iraqi Christians who face persecution abroad — many of whom voted for him in his narrow victory there in 2016.
By the time Air Force One landed in the battleground state, Mr. Trump had decided to take steps to allow the Chaldeans — Iraqi Catholics — to stay in the U.S.
“We have some Chaldeans that are working here,” the president told auto parts workers at a plant in Warren, Michigan. “And we talked about it long and hard on the flight in, and we’re going to make sure that we do everything we can to keep people who have been good to this country out of harm’s way. When I get back [to Washington] we’re going to give those who need it an extension to stay in our country.”
Among the Michigan lawmakers traveling with Mr. Trump was Republican Rep. John Moolenaar, who has proposed a bill with Democratic Rep. Andy Levin that would pause deportations for Iraqi nationals for two years to allow time for them to have their cases heard individually in immigration court.
The Detroit area has one of the largest Chaldean populations outside Iraq, as many as 150,000 residents. The Trump administration is trying to deport more than 1,400 Iraqi nationals, most of whom are Chaldeans living in Detroit. Most of the community is conservative, and they voted heavily for Mr. Trump in 2016 in a state that he won by about 10,000 votes. Some have said they feel betrayed.
Mr. Trump said local officials made a persuasive case to him on the flight to Michigan.
“I said to them, ‘I know you have a wonderful Iraqi Christian community in Michigan,’” Mr. Trump said at the manufacturing plant. “And the congressmen were telling me on the plane how rough it’s been for them. It’s been a very tough time for a lot of Christians all over the world. And so we’re going to be extending them. And a lot of people in Michigan have been asking for that. So we’ll work with that when we get back with your great congressmen.”
Mr. Trump didn’t say specifically what he would do to stop the deportations.
Mr. Levin said in a statement that Mr. Trump created the problem.
“It should be noted that Iraqi nationals face these precarious circumstances only because President Trump broke with past administrations and started aggressively deporting Iraqis,” he said. “The president’s words inspire me with cautious optimism, but let me be extremely clear — relief must be extended to all Iraqi nationals who would face danger if they are deported against their will.
“This issue supersedes partisan politics, and it is not hyperbole to call it a matter of life and death.”
The president’s promise was met with cheers and applause from the workers. But Margo Schlanger, a law professor at the University of Michigan law school, called it “cheap talk.”
“I’ve spent 2.5 years helping protect Chaldeans from mass deportation attempted by the Trump administration,” she tweeted. “They are still trying, we are still fighting. Deportations are scheduled right now. The president has discretion to stop them but he won’t exercise it.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017 began rounding up Iraqis in Michigan, most of them with criminal records. The Obama administration had stopped the deportation of Iraq immigrants with criminal records in 2010 after hearing complaints from Chaldean leaders.
The primary reason for Mr. Trump’s visit to Michigan, his fifth as president, was to promote the new trade deal with Canada and Mexico that he signed Wednesday. The overhaul of the North American Free Trade Agreement is projected to create more than 76,000 jobs in the U.S. automotive sector alone over a five-year period.
“Over the next five years, USMCA is projected to increase purchases of American auto parts by $23 billion a year, and automotive investment by at least $34 billion,” Mr. Trump said. “And it’s the very first trade agreement in decades endorsed by American labor.”
Mr. Trump noted that Fiat Chrysler is investing $4.5 billion and creating 6,500 new jobs in Michigan and opening the first new Detroit plant in more than 30 years. Ford is investing $1.5 billion and creating 3,000 new jobs, while General Motors is investing $2.2 billion and creating 2,200 new jobs in Michigan.
“We just ended a nightmare known as NAFTA,” Mr. Trump said. “They took our jobs for a long time. It’s a whole different ballgame, and it’s going to be great for this plant.”
The Dana Inc. factory where Mr. Trump spoke is in Macomb County, which the president won by 12 percentage points in 2016 after President Obama won the county in the previous two elections.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is scheduled to give part of the Democratic rebuttal to Mr. Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night.
The president’s comments coincided with an economic report showing that growth slowed to 2.1% in the fourth quarter of last year, matching estimates but falling well short of the White House’s projections of 3% following the 2017 tax cuts. For the year, growth in gross domestic product was 2.3%, below the increase of 2.9% in 2018.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. said the fourth-quarter performance was affected by Boeing’s problems with its 737 MAX airliner and by a strike by 48,000 autoworkers at GM. The six-week strike ended in late October, costing GM nearly $2 billion in lost production and employees about $1 billion in lost wages.
“GDP for 2019 is more great news for the American economy and is even better than what today’s numbers show due to those two special factors,” Mr. Ross said. “Beyond this, Americans continue to experience tremendous increases in employment and wages that prime 2020 for further economic gains.”