When Syrians showed up at a Texas border crossing twice in one week last month amid the national debate about screening Syrian refugees, some immigration officials and lawmakers became alarmed, afraid they might be Muslim terrorists.
Turns out, the first group of Syrians who arrived at the Laredo border crossing on Nov. 17 were Christian families fleeing persecution.
Now the two couples and their four children, as well as a third Christian family who arrived Nov. 20, fear they will not be released or reunited in time for the holidays, attorney Jonathan Ryan told the Los Angeles Times.
“There are some misunderstandings out there — that they attempted to illegally enter the country. They presented themselves at the port of entry. Everybody turned themselves in,” he said. “They did everything right in terms of asking for help. They’ve done everything they can to not only save their own lives but the lives of their families.”
The Department of Homeland Security has released statements saying the Syrians turned themselves in. After the third group arrived Nov. 20, “officers took the group into custody and as a standard procedure, checked their identities against numerous law enforcement and national security related databases,” according to the department. “Records checks revealed no derogatory information about the individuals.”
Homeland Security officials said no further information would be released due to “privacy issues.”
Texas is among more than two dozen states where governors have said they do not want Syrian refugees settled after the Paris attacks of Nov. 13, calling them a potential security risk.
It's not clear how many Syrian asylum seekers have arrived at the southern border in recent months, as opposed to those attempting to enter the U.S. through other channels. The number of Syrians seeking asylum in the U.S. has risen in recent years.
There were 104 asylum cases filed by Syrians this year as of June, almost twice as many as in 2010, according to immigration court records. In 2014, for the first time in recent years, Syrians were among the top 25 groups granted asylum in the U.S.
The Syrian women who arrived in Laredo last month have been held with their children at one South Texas immigrant detention center, the men at another, Ryan said. They are not allowed to visit or communicate by phone or letters, he said.
Ryan said they traveled to the U.S. because they have family here and because they had been targeted for being Christian.
“As a group, they are under significant threat. We’re still exploring grounds for the asylum claim,” he said.
On Friday, Ryan met and talked via an Arabic interpreter with the two fathers and a third Christian Syrian who arrived with a group of five on Nov. 20 — his wife, child and two men.
“They seem to be in a state of kind of suspended shock,” Ryan said. “Their lips quiver at the slightest mention of their wives. You can see the pain in their eyes of that separation. They’re willing to undergo every background check, to submit to every step in this process. They’re just asking to be treated like every other immigrant who comes to this country and not be singled out simply because they come from Syria.”
Ryan said the men seemed unaware of the national attention focused on Syrian migrants, and looked “perplexed” when he explained that people were connecting Syrians with the Paris attacks and that “the government thinks you’re a threat.”
The women and children passed asylum interviews, but the families were still denied release Friday by Immigration and Customs Enforcement due to what paperwork listed as “law enforcement interests or potential foreign policy consequences” and because they “have not established to ICE’s satisfaction that [they] are not a danger to the community or U.S. security.”
“The question is why are they continuing to be held compared to other families we are seeing released without these additional hurdles,” said Ryan, executive director of RAICES, an immigrant legal advocacy group based in San Antonio.
Homeland Security spokeswomen did not immediately respond Friday to questions about the Syrian families.
Ryan said he was concerned that “we are seeing what happened this time last year: [ICE] generally opposing the release of people based on national origin.”
In February, a federal judge ruled that immigration officials could not categorically oppose the release of Central American immigrant mothers and children based on the argument that that they posed a threat to national security, using their detention to deter further migration.
Ryan said that he hopes to meet with the Syrian men again soon and to make progress in their families’ cases.
“Everybody has one shared hope,” he said. “To be reunited and freed for Christmas.”