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California and the West

Unequal Success in the Quest for Asylum

Immigration: Iraqi Christians get virtual VIP treatment as they arrive from Mexican custody. Other smuggled groups are often turned away. Experts concede U.S. policy has many gray areas.


SAN DIEGO — More than 200 Iraqi Christians, including 133 who were detained by Mexican police in Tijuana last week, were safe on U.S. soil Wednesday as immigration officials processed their asylum applications. Their journey is turning out a lot happier than that of many who pay smugglers to get them to a new life in the United States.

Chinese groups are regularly captured off the Baja California coast and sent home--at U.S. expense--without setting foot in the United States. But the smuggled Iraqis got virtually VIP treatment as they were escorted into the United States.

The U.S.-Mexico border here is seldom used by foreigners to gain asylum protection in the United States. But the Iraqi case encapsulates some of the tensions running through the national debate over asylum, from familiar concerns about the role of U.S. foreign policy in influencing who gets protection to worries about immigrant smuggling to the basic question of just how generous the United States should be to those fleeing their home countries.

"Asylum is such a fluid process. There are so many gray areas. There's apparent objectivity but so many cases that could go the other way," said Hiroshi Motomura, a University of Colorado law professor and coauthor of an immigration-law textbook.

The Iraqi case "illustrates some of the many tensions you have," he said.

The episode began Sept. 20, when 45 Iraqis streamed across the border from Tijuana and Mexican police surrounded the hotel where 133 others were staying. Six more people arrived at the border by Wednesday morning, bringing to 229 the number of Iraqis who have sought asylum at San Ysidro.

Rather than being deported by Mexico as illegal immigrants, the Iraqis got help from the U.S. government. High-level officials from the United States and Mexico arranged for the asylum-seekers to be bused to the border and handed over to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The detainees were greeted at the San Ysidro port of entry by the INS official who runs it.

The main factor in allowing the Iraqi emigres into the United States, said U.S. immigration officials, was that the refugees already had made it to the border and followed the rules in applying for asylum. Those applications were under review by immigration officials when the Iraqis were confined to their Tijuana hotel by Mexican police.

After two days, Mexico offered to hand over the Iraqis and the INS, sending extra staffers to the border, agreed to take those who had already applied for asylum.

The unusual turn of events drew an exultant reaction from San Diego County's large community of Iraqi Christians, or Chaldeans, who had rallied local U.S. politicians to the cause.

Nearly half of the refugees who reached the United States were released for humanitarian reasons or because they are unlikely to flee. Many are staying with members of the Chaldean community. The rest are in INS custody.

One critic of U.S. immigration policy, however, argues that the Chaldeans should not be considered for U.S. asylum because they were already beyond the grasp of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein once in Mexico.

"Asylum is a life preserver thrown to a drowning man. If you're drowning, you don't get to pick and choose which lifeboat you go on," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., organization that favors reduced levels of immigration.

To gain asylum in the United States, applicants must prove a well-founded fear of persecution because of their political or religious beliefs, nationality, race, membership in a mistreated social group or prior persecution.

Some Chinese have succeeded on grounds they faced forced sterilization under the government's policy limiting most families to one child. But many more have been rejected as would-be immigrants seeking economic opportunity.

Iraqis, however, have had little trouble receiving protection from a U.S. government that waged war on Hussein and considers him a brutal despot.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqis have led all refugee groups in the percentage of asylum applications approved. By late 1999, the INS had given asylum to 3,124 Iraqis--or 85% of those who applied. Applicants from Bosnia were second, with 76% of requests approved. Only one in eight Chinese applications was approved.

The Chaldeans at the U.S.-Mexico border have said they are mistreated as minority Christians in their predominantly Muslim homeland. But each person must prove that fear of persecution is warranted.

Even while letting the Iraqis proceed with their claims, INS officials discouraged the use of smugglers by asylum-seekers. Some of the Iraqis paid up to $10,000 each to be shepherded halfway around the world. "It's very dangerous--we've never endorsed it," said INS spokesman Bill Strassberger. "But when somebody's trying to escape persecution, they'll do whatever's necessary."

U.S. and Mexican officials planned to investigate how the Iraqis were sneaked from Europe into Mexico and north to the border. Strassberger said the asylum rulings are not affected by how the emigres arrived.

Meanwhile, four Chaldeans from San Diego await word from a Mexican federal judge on whether smuggling charges against them will be dropped.

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