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California and the West

Thankful Iraqi Christians Reach U.S.

Immigration: Group of Chaldeans is allowed to leave Mexican custody to pursue asylum requests in San Diego.

September 24, 2000|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Freed after three days in Mexican custody, Faruz Toma and nearly two dozen fellow Iraqis stepped onto U.S. soil Saturday, visibly relieved to be able to continue their quest for asylum in the United States.

"Thank you! Thank you very much!" Toma, 30, exulted on arriving at the San Ysidro border crossing. Trundling a small suitcase and wrestling with two plastic bags crammed with his family's belongings, he summarized his feelings in halting but succinct English. "Very happy," he said. "Not back to Iraq."

Others, toting small children and knapsacks, voiced similar emotions as they trooped 200 yards past tourists and souvenir vendors into the U.S border station. They were met by U.S. immigration officials and taken aside for processing as asylum seekers.

The 23 Iraqi Christians were the second group bused to the port of entry by Mexican officials, who decided Friday to release all 133 emigres who have been held by Mexican federal police at a Tijuana hotel since Wednesday.

Another bus was expected later Saturday, and more groups of about 20 were to arrive in coming days.

News of the arrivals sent a thrill through San Diego's influential community of Chaldeans, Christians from Iraq who had mobilized to prevent the migrants from being deported to the Mideast nation.

"I'm going to tell everyone [Sunday] morning that miracles can happen," said Father Michael Bazzi of St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Church in El Cajon, a hub for San Diego's 15,000 to 20,000 Chaldeans. "It happened this week."

The arrivals Friday night and Saturday brought to 124 the number of Iraqis who have arrived in the United States since Wednesday to seek asylum. Of those, 42 are children, said Immigration and Naturalization Service spokeswoman Lauren Mack. Once they reach the U.S., the INS detains them in a federal facility until their asylum applications are processed.

By late Saturday, however, 16 people--including children and pregnant women--had been released from U.S. custody for humanitarian reasons. Bazzi said the church was receiving some of them and placing them with family members in San Diego.

Others remained in U.S. custody.

Mexican officials, who detained the Iraqis as illegal immigrants, agreed to release them as long as U.S. immigration officials were prepared to process asylum applications, some of which had been submitted two months ago. The INS dispatched extra staffers to the port of entry to handle the increased flow of arrivals.

Meanwhile, Mexican federal immigration officials released two San Diego residents who are U.S. citizens, including a 15-year-old boy; they had been arrested at the Tijuana hotel Tuesday. Immigrant-smuggling charges were pending against three other Americans, but Mexican federal immigration officials said those might be dropped. Four other San Diegans of Iraqi descent were charged with lesser violations of immigration law.

Some of those held at the Suites Royal hotel in Tijuana were awaiting interviews or final decisions by U.S. authorities on asylum applications.

By seeking U.S. asylum while still in Mexico, the emigres hoped to avoid being detained by the INS while their requests were considered. But the first group of Iraqis instead decided to hand themselves over to U.S. officials after others in Tijuana reported being shaken down for bribes by men who appeared to be Mexican police officers, said relatives of those staying at the hotel.

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