The story of 3 Iraqi refugees who crossed the Rio Grande and landed in a federal lockup

By Todd Bensman
PEARSALL, Texas — One fled the Iraqi city of Irbil when militant Islamists threatened his life for befriending local Christians. Another bolted from Kirkuk after the murder of his father and kidnapping of a brother for past ties to Saddam Hussein’s government. A third took flight after angering extremists by resisting a local cleric’s call to jihad.

So go the stories of three Iraqi Kurds who fled their homeland and, after a long journey through Mexico and a quick swim across the Rio Grande, are now languishing inside a federal lockup in this small South Texas town.

The journeys of Wshyar Mohammed-Salih, Majeed Aziz-Beirut and Awat Mahmood-Qadir exemplify the rarely examined phenomenon of the illegal movement of Iraqis over the U.S.-Mexico border since the 2003 American invasion.

In the Pearsall lockup, Wshyar, Majeed and Awat found three of their countrymen already there, and many other Iraqis have passed through these gates, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

The men say they paid a Turkish smuggler $20,000 apiece to secure Mexican visas and airfare that would get them within striking distance of the Rio Grande. Court records say they floated across on March 12 north of McAllen. Five months later, they are waiting for a chance to ask a judge for political asylum.

The number of Iraqis showing up legally and forming small communities in American cities has been well-noted, but much less attention is paid to Iraqis who steal over the border.

“I know America has brought a lot of Iraqis here to live,” Majeed said. “I want to be one of them.”

The exact number is not known, though statistics indicate the stream is small but steady. U.S. Border Patrol apprehension numbers obtained by GlobalPost show that about 200 Iraqis have been caught crossing between 2003 and 2008. That doesn’t account for those who got through and were either never caught or got caught later. The Department of Homeland Security reports having located 964 deportable Iraqis in the U.S. between 2003 and 2008. Some 2,278 Iraqis petitioned for asylum during that time.

Captured Iraqi border crossers rarely grant interviews, but the undocumented trio in Pearsall agreed to share their stories with a GlobalPost reporter through an interpreter. Their tales open a rare window on why and how Iraqis in twos and threes continue to emerge dripping from the Rio Grande when circumstances in Iraq are said to be improving.

Escape hatch
Rising religious and political tensions in Iraq’s predominantly Kurdish north and an almost implacable backlog of refugees waiting for legal resettlement, left Wshyar, Majeed and Awat feeling they had only one recourse: go without permission.

Dressed in dark blue detention facility jumpsuits, each man told a story that involved direct threats to their lives or families they left behind, including wives and children. GlobalPost could not independently corroborate their stories, although FBI officials said the men have been cleared of any known connection to terrorism or insurgents.

Wshyar, a 43-year-old carpenter-turned-taxi driver, said he fled Irbil when militant Islamists threatened to kill him and his four young children for befriending Christians. He put his wife and children in hiding, quickly sold a family home at a discount to raise the smuggling fee and left.

Majeed, a 29-year-old unmarried owner of a small pet shop, said he left his hometown of Kirkuk after the murder of his father and the kidnapping of a still-missing brother for, he suspects, his father’s past work in Saddam Hussein’s security apparatus.

Awat, a 26-year-old electronics salesman and newlywed, said he took flight from Irbil when threatened with death for rejecting a local cleric’s exhortations to attack U.S. and British troops.

Each also noted that local police and security forces were not capable or willing to protect them. Two of the Iraqis didn’t bother asking. Wshyar said he did ask for police protection from the extremist cleric in Irbil, “but they wouldn’t do anything.”

In choosing the U.S. over other destinations, Wshyar said conventional street wisdom held that America offered amazing promises. He hoped America would welcome him with open arms and then he would bring his family over.

“I was obsessed with the idea of coming to America,” he said. We weren’t thinking of just a job and money. We’re just looking for peace for our families. Life isn’t just about money. It’s about feeling safe.”

Their stories are not unfathomable, given recent developments in the Kurdish region of Iraq. For much of the war, the Kurdish north had remained comparatively tranquil. Security had been left mostly to friendly Kurdish paramilitary forces who managed a relative peace. But that situation has changed in the last year.

Retired Army Lieutenant General Ricardo S. Sanchez of San Antonio, who commanded American forces in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, said pre-existing religious and political tensions in these mixed Arab and Kurdish areas got worse as coalition troops planned to transfer security duties to the Iraqi government. Complicating matters, he said, was the migration into northern Iraq of Islamic extremists chased from southern parts of the country.

“Pick a divide and it’s there,” Sanchez said of northern Iraq. “We’ve just tried to keep the problems from boiling over. But now the solutions have to be Iraqi solutions and they’re pretty darn complex.”

None of the three detainees ever seriously considered applying for legal entrance to the U.S. because they said they knew the wait would be interminable and only the lucky are chosen.

“It’s extremely difficult,” Awat said of securing a visa to the U.S. or any other country.

Although the number of granted refugee visas is up, hundreds of thousands are backlogged. An estimated 1.6 million Iraqis still live in neighboring countries. An estimated 2 million more Iraqis have been internally displaced.

Other quick options to find safe haven have disappeared. For instance, in recent months, neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan, which provided temporary sanctuary to nearly 2 million fleeing Iraqis, shut their borders to more.

With extremists threatening to kill him, Wshyar said, “There wasn’t time to wait. Fear of death was our motivation.”

‘If America sees me…’
None of the men knew one another until a smuggler based in Ankara who would only identify himself as “Murat” brought them together in Turkey for their journey. Each of the three travelers said they heard through Murat’s recruiters on the streets of Irbil and Kirkuk about his ability to move Iraqis to the U.S.

Records from a half dozen U.S. prosecutions of Middle Eastern smugglers show that Murat’s methods and organization are not unique. More sophisticated organizations have offered Middle Easterners all-inclusive packages that include bribed travel visas from Central or South American states, airfare, hotel and handholding all the way to the Rio Grande.

The profits can be so lucrative that when U.S. authorities manage to dismantle one, others quickly step in to fill the void.

Demand is strong among those who can afford to pay, especially so among Iraqi Christian refugees. Many Iraqis who have made the illegal journey to the U.S. have been Chaldean and Assyrian Christians, some 400,000 of whom were driven from their homes by Islamic extremists. Their U.S. advocates say this illicit traffic will continue because of rising frustration.

“The government of Iraq is lying to people, saying the situation is better and for the Christians to come back,” said Joseph Kassab, executive director of the Detroit-based Chaldean Federation of America. “If anything, it’s getting worse. Those who are going illegally are only those who give up hope in the U.S. system. I can understand the U.S. can’t take them all … but at least take more than they are.”

Wshyar, Majeed and Awat said Murat charged them $20,000 up front with no guarantee they’d ever even see him again. In return, they were promised Mexican entry visas on their passports, airfare to Mexico City, lodging and delivery into America.

To get started they handed Murat their passports. The next day, they were instructed to meet Murat at the Mexican Embassy in Ankara. There, Murat handed them their passports with Mexican visas inside.

From Ankara, the Iraqis flew with Murat to Dubai, then France and finally arrived in Mexico City on Feb. 3. After several fits and starts over the next month, Murat and a Mexican smuggler led the three men at 2 p.m. on March 12 to a small boat on the banks of the Rio Grande. A Mexican man waiting in a truck on the other side was to take them to a hotel and drop them off.

All were ecstatic to step foot on the U.S. side. The feeling was short-lived, however. Border patrol agents nabbed all three, including the driver, before they could get very far. The driver was prosecuted; the Iraqis detained.

With no close friends, family or jobs in the U.S., none of the three had considered what they’d do if they actually made it to America.

“I just hoped that if America sees me, they’ll help me,” Majeed said, simply.

Whether the steep price they paid in cash and abandoned lives ever yields the dividend of a permanent American home remains an open question. Their new lawyer, Hamza Maayergi, said he is preparing political asylum petitions for them and hopes to get them freed on bond while they wait out the long process.

Until then, the only taste they’ll get of the U.S. is from behind bars.

“I don’t know anything about America,” Awat said. “I just want to rescue my life. I just want a happy life, a peaceful life.”