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.
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.