Breaching America: War refugees or threats?

Web Posted: 05/20/2007 12:51 AM CDT

Todd Bensman
San Antonio Express-News

First part of a four-part series

DAMASCUS, Syria — Al Nawateer restaurant is a place where dreams are bartered and secrets are kept.

Dining areas partitioned by thickets of crawling vines and knee-high concrete fountains offer privacy from informants and agents of the Mukhabarat secret police.

The Mukhabarat try to monitor the hundreds of thousands of Iraq war refugees in this ancient city, where clandestine human smuggling rings have sprung up to help refugees move on — often to the United States.

But the refugees who frequent Al Nawateer, gathering around Table 75 or sitting alone in a corner, are undaunted, willing to risk everything to meet a smuggler. They come to be solicited by someone who, for the right price, will help them obtain visas from the sometimes bribery-greased consulates of nations adversarial or indifferent to American security concerns.

The deals cut at places like Al Nawateer could affect you. Americans from San Antonio to Detroit might find themselves living among immigrants from Islamic countries who have come to America with darker pursuits than escaping war or starting a new life.

U.S.-bound illicit travel from Islamic countries, which started long before 9-11 and includes some reputed terrorists, has gained momentum and worried counterterrorism officials as smugglers exploit 2 million Iraq war refugees. The irony is that the war America started to make itself safer has forced more people regarded as security threats toward its borders.

A stark reminder of U.S. vulnerability at home came this month when six foreign-born Muslims, three of whom had entered the country illegally, were arrested and accused of plotting to attack the Army's Fort Dix in New Jersey.

What might have happened there is sure to stoke the debate in Congress, which this week will take up border security and immigration reform. But the Iraqi refugee problem provides a twist on the question of what assurances America owes itself in uncertain times: What do we owe Iraqis thrown into chaos by the war?

Politically, immigration can be a faceless issue. But beyond the rhetoric, the lives of real people hang in the balance. A relatively small but politically significant number are from Islamic countries, raising the specter, some officials say, of terrorists at the gate.

For those few, the long journey to America starts at places like Al Nawateer.

The restaurant's reputation as a meeting place is what drew Aamr Bahnan Boles.

Night after night, Boles, a lanky 24-year-old, sat alone eating grilled chicken and tabouli in shadows cast by Al Nawateer's profusion of hanging lanterns. Boles always came packing the $5,000 stake his father had given him when he fled Iraq.

Boles was ordering his meal after another backbreaking day working a steam iron at one of the area's many basement-level garment shops when he noticed a Syrian man loitering near his table. The Syrian appeared to be listening intently. He was of average build and wearing a collared shirt. Boles guessed he was about 35 years old.

When the waiter walked away, the Syrian approached Boles, leaned over the cheap plastic table and spoke softly. He introduced himself as Abu Nabil, a common street nickname revealing nothing.

"I noticed your accent," the Syrian said politely. "Are you from Iraq?"

Boles nodded.

"I could help you if you want to leave," the Syrian said. "Just tell me when and where. I can get you wherever you want to go."

For an instant, Boles hesitated. Was the Syrian a Mukhabarat agent plotting to take his money and send him back to Iraq? Was he a con artist who would deliver nothing in return for a man's money?

"I want to go to the USA," Boles blurted.

"It can be done," said the Syrian. But it wouldn't be cheap, he warned. The cost might be as high as $10,000.

Hedging against a con, Boles said he didn't have that kind of money.

The Syrian told him there was a bargain-basement way of getting to America. For $750, he could get Boles a visitor's visa from the government of Guatemala in neighboring Jordan.

"After that you're on your own," the Syrian said. "But it's easy. You fly to Moscow, then Cuba and from there to Guatemala."

The implication was obvious. The Syrian would help Boles get within striking distance of the U.S. border. The rest was up to him.

Boles knew it wouldn't be easy or quick. Not until a year later, in fact, in the darkness just before dawn on April 29, 2006, would he finally swim across the Rio Grande on an inner tube and clamber up the Texas riverbank 40 miles west of Brownsville.

But Boles was undaunted. He cut a deal with the Syrian, setting in motion a journey into the vortex of a little-known American strategy in the war on terror: stopping people like him from stealing over the border.

River of immigrants

Near the tiny Texas community of Los Indios, the Rio Grande is deep, placid and seemingly of little consequence.

But its northern bank is rigged with motion sensors that U.S. Border Patrol agents monitor closely, swarming whenever the sensors are tripped.

Here and all along the river, an abstract concept becomes real. America's border with Mexico isn't simply a political issue or security concern. It is a living body of water, surprisingly narrow, with one nation abutting its greenish-brown waters from the north and another from the south.

Since 9-11, the U.S. government has made guarding the 1,952-mile Mexican border a top priority. One million undocumented immigrants are caught each year trying to cross the southern and northern U.S. borders.

Because all but a tiny fraction of those arrested crossing the southern border are Mexican or Central American, issues of border security get framed accordingly and cast in the image of America's neighbors to the south. Right or wrong, in this country the public face of illegal immigration has Latino features.

But there are others coming across the Rio Grande, and many are in Boles' image.

People from 43 so-called "countries of interest" in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa are sneaking into the United States, many by way of Texas, forming a human pipeline that exists largely outside the public consciousness but that has worried counterterrorism authorities since 9-11.

These immigrants are known as "special-interest aliens." When caught, they can be subjected to FBI interrogation, detention holds that can last for months and, in rare instances, federal prison terms.

The perceived danger is that they can evade being screened through terror-watch lists.

The 43 countries of interest are singled out because terrorist groups operate there. Special-interest immigrants are coming all the time, from countries where U.S. military personnel are battling radical Islamist movements, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and the Philippines. They come from countries where organized Islamic extremists have bombed U.S. interests, such as Kenya, Tanzania and Lebanon. They come from U.S.-designated state sponsors of terror, such as Iran, Syria and Sudan.

And they come from Saudi Arabia, the nation that spawned most of the 9-11 hijackers.

Iraq war refugees, trapped in neighboring countries with no way out, are finding their way into the pipeline.

Zigzagging wildly across the globe on their own or more often with well-paid smugglers, their disparate routes determined by the availability of bogus travel documents and relative laxity of customs-enforcement practices, special-interest immigrants often converge in Latin America.

And, there, a northward flow begins.

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