LAREDO, Texas — Will Christians fleeing Syria have to spend Christmas in U.S. detention cells?
In mid-November, three Syrian families presented themselves at the Laredo border crossing in Texas to request asylum. Amid a roiling debate over accepting Syrian refugees after the Paris terror attacks, some media reports speculated they were Islamic State terrorists probing the border or were “caught” trying to illegally enter the United States. Gov. Greg Abbott went so far as to post on Twitter: “THIS is why Texas is vigilant about Syrian refugees.”
However, all three families were Christian men, women and children — eight in total, including a Catholic woman, one of Abbott’s co-religionists — according to their attorney, Jonathan Ryan.
“The reports were far, far from accurate,” Ryan, executive director of the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), told the Register.
“These poor people fled from their homes just because of who they are, and they came to this country because they believed we are a beacon of protection,” he said. “Now we’re harming them because of who they are.”
The Syrian Christians, now Ryan’s clients, are being held near the border in family detention centers, while their cases are being processed, which could take months.
Ryan said his request for their humanitarian parole — allowing them to be with family members until their asylum case is decided — was denied on Friday. The reason given, Ryan said, was “on the basis of law enforcement interests,” even though they all have letters of support from family members. They plan to file their request again on Tuesday.
In the family detention system — a term Ryan finds “Orwellian” — the families are lodged in prison cells. Ryan said the men, including the fathers, are separated from the women and children, and placed in their own cells. Mothers also have no control over their children’s education, nutrition or health care, including immunization shots.
“The mother has no clue what has been injected into her kids,” he said.
The Syrian-Christian asylum seekers are caught in the whirlwind of U.S. immigration politics that has been fed by the rhetoric of politicians, from Donald Trump to Sen. Ted Cruz, according to Ryan. The eight Syrian Christians are being held in family detention centers that were closed and then later revived by President Barack Obama to hold unaccompanied minors that fled gang violence in Central America from last year’s migration wave.
“Their original purpose was to convince refugees not to continue coming here,” he said. According to Ryan, government officials make the process difficult in order to convince a person to break down, give up hope of finding asylum in the U.S. and be deported to their home country.
And even though a federal judge has ruled the family detention system unconstitutional, the Obama administration has continued to fight for it — the president’s public statements on immigration notwithstanding.
“We’ve only seen the government double and triple down to preserve the family detention system,” Ryan said.
Desperate to Leave
The Syrian Christians held at Laredo are not the only ones arrested en route to the U.S. border in order to seek asylum from a war where the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS/ISIL or Daesh, has taken over 70% of Syria.
According to La Nacion, an unnamed Argentine official said that seven Syrians arrested with false Greek passports in Argentina were Christians fleeing persecution in Syria.
Syriac-Catholic Father Iyad Ghanem, project coordinator for Caritas Syria in Homs, told the Register that five young men arrested in Honduras were not “Syrian Muslims” — as claimed by Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch — but were in fact Christians from the vicinity of Homs, Syria.
Father Ghanem said that all five of the young men’s families were weeping in his office when they learned they were arrested. One of the men also came from his native village.
Four of the Christians are university students — Mazen Michel Mikhail, Laurans Riead Samaan, William Joseph Ghanem and Majd Rafik Ghandour — and the fifth, Fady Issa Freej, is a painter, according to Father Ghanem.
“Their families are afraid and worried about them; they visited me in my Caritas office in Homs, and they begged me to do something for them,” the priest added.
Last week, the young men were released from prison and have been staying at the house of a caretaker. Father Ghanem said the men still want to go and seek asylum in the United States. The priest said that many other Christians — men, women and families — had fled Homs for the U.S., Canada and Europe to escape the terror of living in the shadow of Islamist militants, many of whom were from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“They will never go back to Syria, especially in these difficult circumstances of the country,” Father Ghanem said. On Dec. 12, in Zahra, a neighborhood of Homs, a car bomb exploded and killed 16 people.
The priest said it’s not simply difficult, but just “impossible,” for Christians from Syria to obtain a visa to the U.S. — even to visit. He said one Catholic priest from Syria — who is bound to return to Syria by his bishop — was told one day at the U.S. Embassy in Rome that he could pick up a visa to travel to the U.S. He arrived the next day to find out he was denied. This same scenario played out at the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon.
“That's why they run away and try to arrive by illegal ways to anywhere,” he said. “Sometimes, they are ready to face death, the oceans, the seas ... just to find a safe place.”
Fighting for Recognition
Christians who have fled the horrors of war in Syria are hanging on in the margins of society in neighboring countries. Most Christians are urban refugees — many live in church and school basements or with relatives. However, Christians generally refuse to live in the U.N. camps, where they could be registered as refugees for relocation, out of concern for their safety.
“[Christians] are looking for the ‘back road’ channels to find safety and a safe place to land,” said Kirsten Evans, executive director of In Defense of Christians, a Washington-based lobby representing the interests of Christians in the Middle East.
Even if large numbers of Christians were registered refugees, it would be years before they could be resettled in a new country. Evans told the Register that the refugee process to settle Syrians in a new host country takes 18-24 months. However, she said the wait could be seven years long: Syrian refugees are being told that their first appointment to start that process will not begin until 2020.
The situation for Christians in Syria has continued to deteriorate.
“At one point, the vast majority of Christians had found it to be advantageous to settle within Syria under areas nominally controlled by the government,” Michael La Civita, spokesman for Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), told the Register. “Now, more and more are leaving as the pressure gets more intense.”
The Church provides a lifeline for the Christian refugees it can find, but overall circumstances for those who have no savings left are grim. Refugees now account for approximately a quarter of Lebanon and Jordan’s population, and the only work available for them is under the table and at very low rates.
In Beirut, La Civita explained, the influx cost of refugees has driven rents and the cost of living up and depressed salaries and wages. The financial assistance per refugee family is declining from U.N. agencies, which are nearly bankrupt dealing with an unprecedented numbers of refugees worldwide. Some Christian families, desperate for survival, have had their wives and daughters go into prostitution to make sure they can eat, because the husband or brothers cannot support the family.
“That is a huge element of shame,” La Civita said. The same suffering is shared by Muslim Syrians.
“Refugees are refugees — no population is immune to this,” he said.
Changing U.S. Policy
IDC is lobbying the government to give Syrian and Iraqi Christians preferential treatment as refugees and asylum seekers along with Yazidi victims of genocide. But Evans said IDC was not calling for a religious litmus test, noting that Muslims have suffered terribly, too.
“We’re not asking for a litmus test based on religion, but for a litmus test based on vulnerability,” she said. Evans said the vulnerability comes from the fact that Syrian and Iraqi Christians are targeted for elimination by Daesh because of their religious identity.
Evans said House Concurrent Resolution 75 would ask the president to recognize the liquidation of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria by Daesh and other Islamist terrorist groups as “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.” So far, the House bill has more than 160 bipartisan co-sponsors, but it has not yet been put to a floor vote.
“We’re not exactly sure what the hold up is,” Evans said. She added that a companion bill is being drafted in the Senate, and she had reason to hope both houses would vote on the bill before Congress goes into recess.
Having an official genocide designation will clarify for the world the degree of atrocities happening to Christians and others in the Middle East, Evans explained, adding it also will impose obligations on the U.S. government to act in the interests of Christians and other religious minorities seeking refuge.
In the meantime, back in Homs, Christians are holding on amid the shattered ruins of their city.
“The most important risk which the country lives [with] is the absence of the Christians and the emptiness of the region from Christians,” Father Ghanem said.
“In Homs, we are awaiting the peace.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.