SAN DIEGO — The immigration lawyer and his client sat huddled at the defense bench in federal court, whispering in a foreign tongue.
Robert DeKelaita, born and baptized Christian in Iraq and raised in the U.S., is a solidly built man who dwarfed his slender client, a frightened young Iraqi named Yousif Ibrahim. DeKelaita murmured assurances in a modern version of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.
Ibrahim, 23, a Christian, had been jailed as a "deportable/inadmissible alien" since he walked across the U.S.-Mexico border at San Ysidro in May. Except for a phony Polish passport and a copy of his baptismal certificate, he arrived with only the clothes on his back.
Ibrahim wore a blue prison smock and baggy trousers. A court officer removed his handcuffs, and Ibrahim absently rubbed red welts on his left wrist, just below a tattoo of Jesus Christ.
Minutes later, DeKelaita described how Ibrahim's father had been burned to death in his home by Muslim insurgents in Iraq in January 2007 -- because he was a Christian working for the U.N, and because another son had served in the U.S. armed forces.
"Your honor, he cannot go back to Iraq. . . . He has established credible fear" of persecution, DeKelaita told the immigration judge.
The judge set a new hearing, giving DeKelaita more time to prove his case. DeKelaita whispered again to Ibrahim in Aramaic, promising that he would be a free man soon.
Over the last decade, DeKelaita has obtained asylum for hundreds of Iraqi Christians threatened with deportation. He travels the U.S. to counsel distraught, uprooted men and women who have fled religious persecution in Iraq.
But each new grant of asylum leaves DeKelaita feeling conflicted; his efforts inadvertently contribute to the slow dissolution of the once-vibrant Christian community in Iraq.
"My heart is really wedded to the idea that they should be safe and secure in their own homeland in Iraq," DeKelaita, 45, said inside his law office in Skokie, Ill., near Chicago. "What I'm doing is temporary. That's how I justify it to myself -- that they will one day all go back home safely to their homeland."
Repressed under Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Christian population has been decimated since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Muslim extremists have murdered priests and burned churches and Christian-owned shops and homes. Priests in Iraq estimate that fewer than 500,000 Christians remain, about a third of the number as before 2003.
On March 13, the body of the archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was recovered, two weeks after he was kidnapped while leaving Mass. The slaying prompted Iraqi Christians to consider worshiping in secret; church services have also been attacked. Christian leaders say some Christians have been abducted and killed after refusing to convert to Islam.
"No group was happier than Christians when Saddam fell," DeKelaita said. "But no group is more disappointed with the way things played out."
Anguished over mistreatment of Iraqi Christian family members and strangers, DeKelaita long ago decided to dedicate his law practice to defending them. He is among a handful of immigration lawyers nationwide who specialize in representing Iraqi Christians, though he represents other clients.
"I know their pain; I feel it," he said of Iraqi Christians. "These are my people. I don't even have to ask them what they've been through."
Each Christian released from federal custody is a blessing, he said. But for the most part, "I deal in misery, unfortunately."
In August, DeKelaita got a 3 a.m. phone call from his mother in Chicago telling him that her brother had been kidnapped in Kirkuk, DeKelaita's city of birth. The kidnappers demanded a $120,000 ransom, DeKelaita said. After a series of phone calls and e-mails to Iraq, his uncle was released. DeKelaita declined to say whether any ransom was paid.
DeKelaita did say, however, that he sent money to hire bodyguards for his uncle. He worries about his aunt, an interpreter for the U.S. military, whose position is known to Muslim insurgents, he said.
Unlike Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, Iraqi Christians have no militia to protect them. Many are clustered in villages in the Nineveh plains north of Mosul, where their ancestors lived before the Islamic conquest.
DeKelaita's own family left Iraq for the U.S. in 1973, when he was 11. Baptized in the Assyrian Church of the East, DeKelaita spoke virtually no English but quickly learned the language in public schools in Chicago. He earned a master's degree in international relations from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Loyola University. He is married to an Iraqi Christian; they have taught Aramaic to their sons, ages 10 and 17.
Even as he delivers speeches and writes articles seeking support for Christians in Iraq, DeKelaita presses ahead on dozens of asylum cases every month.