The journey north from Guatemala through Mexico to the Texas border lasted 17 days.
Finally, on the evening of Feb. 26, 2006, the young family of four saw the river come into view.
Weary and beaten, with the baby starting to fuss, the family was driven in a car right up to the Rio Grande.
And there, it stopped in a cloud of dust.
George and his wife, Baida, were Iraqi refugees. They fled their homeland because Muslim extremists had made two things clear: They didn’t like the family’s Christian faith, for one. What was worse, to the gunmen prowling the neighborhood, were the sons’ names, George and Toni, which seemed to lionize President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The decision to hire a smuggler to get them to America was clinched after militants told George Sr., a milk delivery man, that he was next on the beheading list for being an “infidel Christian,” and after caregivers at their children’s nursery became untrustworthy.
“People started calling him George Bush … so we stopped sending him to school in fear of him getting kidnapped,” Baida, a hair stylist, later would tell American authorities. “Same thing with my young baby, Toni; they called him Tony Blair.”
The journey from Iraq to the Texas border had been expensive and risky, especially moving inconspicuously with two young children through hostile, foreign terrain. But looking at the river, the family realized this was more than just a border. It was a river. They would have to swim across. None of them knew how.
Baida refused. George, too, couldn’t bring himself to do it. The Mexican laborers who waited nearby for darkness got them going. Amused, the men urged the couple on, offering to help with the children.
My God, George thought, I came all this distance and there’s America, finally, just right over there. And now you just have to do it.
So, with the help of the Mexicans, George waded in, carrying his older son over his head.
The family had come too far to go back. (The San Antonio Express-News has agreed to withhold the family’s full name to prevent retaliation against other relatives still in Iraq.)
They had done what hundreds of thousands of other Christian Iraqi families have since the American invasion: sold everything in the face of horrific and systematic religious persecution, and fled north to Damascus, Syria, or Amman, Jordan.
Out of options, the family joined an increasing number of such refugees who are proceeding toward America, bent on crossing the border illegally.
A flight of Christians
Alarms go off along American borders among federal law enforcement authorities whenever immigrants from certain countries in the Middle East, North Africa or South Asia are discovered crossing illegally. Thousands have since 9-11, and when caught they’re automatically labeled by the government as “special-interest aliens” and can be subjected to FBI interrogation and investigation as potential terrorists.
Since the war in Iraq spawned aggressive insurgent activity against American troops, the alarms have grown especially shrill when the captured immigrants are Iraqis.
Those caught crossing illegally in Texas and elsewhere along the southern border, however, are more likely victims of Islamic terrorists, the Express-News found after six months examining the topic. Still, border guards and federal agents can’t be certain and have to employ special screening procedures to find out.
The war has set off a massive exodus that, ironically, has driven more Iraqis to America, making counter-terrorism officials all the more strained and anxious about who is crossing the border and what they intend.
Chaldean (pronounced KAL-dee-en) Christians are an ancient ethnic minority of Catholics who made up about 4 percent of Iraq’s population. More than 600,000 of them, half the Chaldean population in Iraq, are thought to have fled the war to neighboring countries.
Chaldean Christian refugees in the U.S., Syria and Jordan say the American-led war unleashed Islamic militants who have targeted them because of their religion in vicious campaigns of murder, kidnapping for ransom and forced property expropriations.
Ordinarily, religious persecution can qualify victims for U.S. resettlement visas. But the U.S. State Department hasn’t issued visas to Chaldeans and won’t recognize them as especially persecuted for their religion, asserting that they are among many groups amid Iraq’s sectarian strife who could make the claim. So they wait.
While most are sitting out the war as refugees in Syria and Jordan, other Chaldean Christians have chosen not to.
They are coming illegally to Texas, and to other border states, sometimes getting entangled along the way, in entire families, pregnant women, single mothers and young men going it alone or in small groups.
“They know there was nothing for them, so therefore they have to create an act of desperation like this,” said Joseph Kassab, executive director of the Detroit-based Chaldean Federation of America. “Those people, most of them, were able to get some money, or sell homes before they fled Iraq, and the smugglers know about them and so they go to them and talk about smuggling them.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures show only about 100 Iraqis have been caught at the borders between 9-11 and the end of last year, more than 60 of them along the Southwest border and about 20 in Texas. But those relatively small numbers don’t account for the months of this year when refugee outflows from Iraq have jumped.
In April, five Iraqi families with children were in detention at the federal T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor after Border Patrol agents picked them up in Texas and California; a half-dozen were in custody in the San Diego, Calif., area; 11 Iraqis were caught at a Mexican airport; and Belize authorities were trying to figure out what to do with 10 U.S.-bound Iraqis abandoned by their smuggler.
Umru “Crazy Tiger” Hassan, an interpreter for the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq until Islamists threatened to kill him, personifies the situation. Hassan, a Christian, divulged to the Express-News in Damascus that he was on his way to Texas.
Islamic militants in Iraq had threatened Hassan’s life not because of his work with the U.S. military but because he had married a Muslim woman. They came around one day to let him know he’d better convert.
“It was a big problem,” he said of the marriage, which is now on the rocks. “It was, ‘Hey you, if you don’t want to be Muslim, we’re going to kill you.’ But I’m not changing my religion. Why should I?”
He left his military job and went to Damascus about six months ago, where he and his sister make a subsistence living running a tiny laundry called “Iraq Cleaning.” He was frustrated there with the lack of opportunity and money.
So Hassan decided a more prudent course was to plot a route to Texas.
He said Hispanic soldiers with whom he was serving told him how easy it was to cross the Mexico-Texas border, and they offered the help of their own families in Mexico. He plans to take advantage of the offer.
“If I make it successfully in this way, I’m going to bring my family the same way,” said Hassan, who has a young daughter still in Iraq.
Lobby campaign stalled
Long before 9-11 and the war in Iraq, Chaldean Christians were sneaking across the U.S. southern border, mostly hoping to join relatives among the roughly 250,000 Chaldean Christians who have settled in major cities such as San Diego and Detroit.
Many of the Iraqi Christians have the financial means and the will to immigrate. In Iraq, as in the U.S., they tend to be educators, professionals and business owners.
Several U.S. prosecutions of smuggling rings that have specialized in Middle East clientele show that Chaldean Iraqis long have been favored because they tend to be affluent, or have relatives in the States who can pay smuggling fees of $8,000 to $25,000.
In almost every case, Iraqi Christians declare political asylum once they make it to U.S. soil. Indeed, these days, an Iraqi Christian stands a much better chance of gaining legal residency by coming across illegally than by applying for a visa.
For the past 18 months, the Chaldean Federation has lobbied the U.S. State Department and Homeland Security Department to issue 160,000 visas for Iraqi Christians on grounds of religious persecution.
“We would like them all to be admitted, like the Vietnamese,” Kassab said. “They took 135,000 Vietnamese refugees in 10 months under President Ford. We want something similar to that.”
The initiative has run headlong into a domestic political debate over Iraq war policy in which the Bush administration is not eager to acknowledge a permanent refugee problem by resettling large numbers.
Last year, the Bush administration granted about 5,500 admission visas for all of the Middle East, of which only 500 were earmarked for Iraqis, and none specifically for Chaldean Christians.
The number of visas earmarked for the Middle East next fiscal year was increased from about 7,000 to 25,000, and the Chaldeans expect some.
Officials have reportedly told Chaldean Christian leaders in the U.S. that a need to conduct thorough security background checks on all Iraqis who might be considered for resettlement has stalled the process.
“We know the big stumbling block at this time is the security check,” Kassab said. “They don’t want to budge on this issue. They consider all Iraqis the same. If anything, our people are victims of terrorists; they are not terrorists.”
Peter Eisenhauer, spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, cited a different reason for not resettling Chaldean Christians in large numbers.
“We weren’t going to do a population like that because there are a number of different Iraqi groups that are also vulnerable and at risk,” he said.
The experience of several Chaldean Christian Iraqis caught crossing the Texas border shows the security dilemma American homeland security personnel face when one is caught.
Iraqi refugee Aamr Bahnan Boles, who was profiled last week in an Express-News series, found himself detained and sentenced to six months in prison with two other men who said they are Iraqi Christians because they couldn’t prove who they were.
The federation’s Kassab said he’s well aware that border authorities especially fear that a real terrorist from Iraq might try to pose as a Chaldean Christian. Kassab thinks he has a solution: The federation has drafted a set of secret answers to cultural and religious questions that could be asked of any Iraqi who claims to be a Chaldean Christian.
Kassab said he may be making headway on the issue. Recently, he said, the federation was allowed to train 25 immigration asylum officers and judges in Chicago in how to identify a Chaldean Christian with a high degree of certainty.
Pain in Detroit
Much anguish can be found in Detroit’s churches, Chaldean-owned restaurants and domino parlors where men smoke shisha pipes on Sundays after Mass. The war has engulfed them with news of murdered loved ones and displaced families.
There are mixed emotions about who’s to blame for what has befallen the Chaldeans. In the era of Saddam Hussein, many Christians felt protected from Arab Muslims. Some were left alone and flourished in business, academia and the professions. Top Saddam adviser Tariq Aziz was a Chaldean Christian.
Since Saddam’s ouster, Arab militias have ravaged Christian communities.
Father Jacob Yasso, who has presided over the Sacred Heart Church and Chaldean Community Center on Detroit’s West 7-Mile Street for more than 30 years, said he believes America owes admission to Chaldeans trapped and suffering overseas.
He remains proud of a picture of himself giving Saddam the key to Detroit’s Chaldean community 30 years ago, after the dictator gave him $1.5 million to build his church and community center.
“America owes the Chaldeans justice,” he said. “Let us come. Let us come.”
As the stalemate between Detroit and Washington continues, thousands of Iraqi Christians in Syria and Jordan dutifully register with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a first step to securing resettlement visas to Europe or North America, and in some cases Australia and New Zealand.
But all too often that portends an indefinite wait that some are simply not willing to tolerate while scrabbling for a meager living in the dusty working-class tenement suburbs of Damascus and Amman.
George and Baida decided to flee to prevent this from happening to them. They raised $32,000 by selling their house, furniture, cars and salon equipment at cut-rate prices, then fled to Damascus.
There, they found, according to Baida, that “everybody is planning to go someplace — everyone.”
George said he easily found a smuggler, a Jordanian who gave no name or information. He paid the smuggler $10,000. For that, the smuggler provided airline tickets and Guatemalan and Cuban visas for the family, as well as arranging a safe house in Guatemala City.
The family members flew to Moscow and then Cuba, where they spent three days in a hotel with no running water and buckets of water with which to flush toilets. Once in Guatemala, the family settled in for a couple of months in a Guatemala City safe house, a tidy home owned by a woman named “Maria” who charged $100 a month rent.
She grew so attached to George and Toni that when the time came she personally arranged for the best Guatemala smuggler she could find to shepherd the family to the Texas border. The man only gave his name as “Miguel” and charged $15,000.
“He charged me extra because of the kids,” George said. “I didn’t care; I just wanted to get my kids to America.”
The following weeks were a blur of transferring from car to truck to van, staying in safe houses or sleeping in cars, and hiding under blankets in the backs of pickups.
Miguel never once strayed from the family’s side, his word given to Maria not to, and he made sure to provide all of the family’s needs.
Through it all, the parents worried about what would happen to their children if they were caught, and even more about bandits and killers who prey on immigrants. They fed the kids chicken, tortillas, rice and cookies.
When 9-month-old Toni would start to cry at a moment when silence was necessary, Baida would breast-feed him. A candy bar kept the older boy quiet when necessary.
After they swam the Rio Grande, Miguel told them: “This is America. You’re safe now.” They hugged Miguel and he turned back to the river.
Once on the Texas side, not far from the rural town of Los Indios, everyone in the group scattered through the brush, leaving the family to stumble on in the dark.
Eventually, George found a convenience store and hailed a taxi, water still dripping from his clothes. He asked the cabdriver to take the family to the nearest Border Patrol station.
When they arrived at one in Brownsville, George told the clerk on duty what most Chaldean Christians are taught to say in such situations:
“I am an Iraqi Christian. I want asylum.”
Unlike other Iraqi special interest immigrants, the family members were released relatively quickly after some cursory interviews and a terror watch list check.
After all, how many real terrorists bring their toddlers along?
They’re now with George’s brother in Muskegon, Mich., living in a small two-bedroom apartment.
They await a verdict on their asylum claim in Brownville.
In Michigan, George said he is looking forward to “a normal life in America” where he can send his two boys to good schools and no one will politicize their names.
To show his appreciation to his new country, he pledged one of his two boys to serve in the U.S. military — when they grow up.
“They have to serve their country,” George Sr. said. “This country helped us, and we have to help America.”