Forced to flee Iraq, some seek to enter at U.S. southern border

Promise of asylum is driving many to find alternate method of entry

March 11, 2007|By New York Times News Service

SAN DIEGO -- Assad's desperate flight from Iraq began on foot.

For days, he trekked from Iraq to Turkey and from Turkey to Greece. He slipped through remote rural villages and crossed a river's rushing waters to escape the violence that had left his cousin dead and his father in hiding.

Finally, after paying smugglers to get him on flights to Spain, Brazil, Guatemala and Mexico, he joined the crush of Spanish-speaking migrants on a bus ride to America's doorstep.

Assad, an Iraqi Christian and the 21-year-old son of a liquor merchant, said his stomach lurched as he tried to convince the U.S. border patrol agents here that he was no ordinary migrant.

"I'm not one of those people," said Assad, who crossed the border from Mexico last year and was granted asylum, describing how he pleaded for refuge. "I am Iraqi," said Assad, who asked that only his first name be published because he fears for the safety of his family in Iraq. "I need your help."

As the violence rages in Iraq and tens of thousands of its people flee to neighboring countries, a small stream of Iraqis is trickling into the United States despite improbable odds. Like Assad, some have traveled to the southern border because there were few good opportunities for resettlement overseas and tight limits on visas to come here.

Until last month, the Bush administration declined to admit significant numbers of Iraqi refugees stranded in countries like Syria and Jordan, saying it was striving to stabilize Iraq so that people could safely return home.

While as many as several thousand Iraqi refugees were typically admitted annually in the years of Saddam Hussein's rule before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only 466 have been resettled here since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Under pressure from lawmakers in Congress, advocates for immigrants and the United Nations, the administration announced in February that it would resettle 7,000 Iraqi refugees living in Syria, Jordan and Turkey, with up to 3,000 arriving by Sept. 30.

Preference will be given to the most vulnerable refugees, along with those who worked with the Americans. (Translators who assisted the military currently face a six-year waiting list for a visa designated for them.)

Still, administration officials emphasize that they expect to admit only a small fraction of the 2 million Iraqis believed to be living in neighboring countries. They believe that most Iraqis ultimately will be able to return home.

"The United States and the international community can best help displaced Iraqis by quelling the violence in Iraq and assisting them in making their country peaceful, prosperous and secure," Paula J. Dobriansky, an undersecretary at the State Department, said last month.

Advocacy groups that favor limits on immigration have hailed that stance. "They're approaching it the right way by trying to limit resettlement," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies.

So with few other options, some frightened Iraqis have taken matters into their own hands. The fortunate ones have obtained visas to study or visit relatives here and have applied for asylum when they arrived.

Others, like Assad and his 30-year-old cousin, Nader, have paid smugglers thousands of dollars to lead them on arduous journeys across several countries and have spent months in U.S. detention centers while their asylum claims were reviewed.

People fleeing persecution in their countries can seek refugee status here only from outside this country. If they can get to this country, they are eligible to apply for asylum. And as the sectarian violence in Iraq has flared in recent years, the number of asylum applications has increased.

In the 2006 fiscal year, the number of asylum applications filed by Iraqis stood at 511, up from 268 in 2004, government statistics show.

One 59-year-old Iraqi man, on the run from militants who threatened him for working as a translator for the U.S. military, said he had no choice but to seek refuge in the United States. Militants had fired bullets into his house, set his car on fire and left threatening notes in his yard, warning, "Your time will come soon."

Then in May 2005, a group of unknown men knocked on his door, he said. His brother answered and was shot and killed.

The man, a Shiite who lives in New York now and spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears for his relatives living in Iraq, seized an opportunity to come to the United States for a training program on a visitor's visa.

Once he arrived, he applied for asylum in December 2005 with assistance from Human Rights First, an advocacy group. He was granted refuge in February of 2006.

Now he is struggling to get his wife and children, who have fled to Syria, into this country. He is also trying to resettle one of his sons, who is in hiding in Iraq.

"I gave them shelter before, but nobody gives them shelter now," he said wearily. "I worked with the United States Army. Now my family has to pay the price."

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