By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
HOUSTON — 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, after the Paris attacks on Nov. 13, governors have said they do not want Syrian refugees settled, 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.
Syrians filed 104 asylum cases 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. They are not allowed to visit or communicate by phone or letters, Ryan said.
The families traveled to the U.S. because they have relatives here and because they had been targeted for being Christian, Ryan said.
“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 in the Nov. 17 group and a third Christian Syrian who had arrived Nov. 20 with his wife, child and two other 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 that the men seemed unaware of the national attention focused on Syrian migrants, and that they 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.”
“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 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 hoped 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.”
©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: Masa Wawieh, 4, left, and Maram, 8, watch their father, Fouad Wawieh, make tea in a Pomona, Calif., motel where they are staying after arriving from Syria, on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)