Eight Syrians showed up at a Texas border crossing seeking asylum this week, sparking concern that the U.S. could soon be facing a wave of Syrian migrants across the southern border.
"If Europe makes it more difficult for people to come there and the U.S. does not accept more refugees, we can expect people will try to get asylum and find other ways to come to the U.S.," said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
It's not clear how many Syrians have arrived at the southern border seeking asylum in recent months, as opposed to those brought to the U.S. legally as refugees. While numerous congressional, state and local lawmakers have rejected Syrian refugees, they have yet to address Syrian asylum seekers.
On Tuesday, two Syrian families — two men, two women and four children — presented themselves at the busy Laredo border crossing and were transferred to detention centers elsewhere in south Texas, according to a statement from the Department of Homeland Security.
"They surrendered at a port of entry and are seeking asylum. There's no evidence they tried to enter illegally," said Shawn Moran, San Diego-based spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents Border Patrol agents.
It's not unheard of for immigrants fleeing overseas war zones to be caught on the southern border. Immigration officials announced Thursday that they had seized half a dozen men from Afghanistan and Pakistan after they tripped a sensor while crossing the border in southern Arizona.
The number of Syrians seeking asylum in the U.S. has risen in recent years. There were 104 asylum cases filed by Syrians this year as of June, almost twice as many as in 2010, according to immigration court records.
Last year, Syrians were among the top 25 groups granted asylum in the U.S. for the first time in recent years.
On Thursday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not release recent figures concerning the number of Syrians caught at the border. There were 72 caught nationwide in 2013, down from 101 five years earlier.
But those who work with Syrian migrants said they are increasingly seeking to flee Europe to join family in the U.S. via Mexico and Central America, especially after the Paris attacks.
"They're coming through any alternative way to get to the United States border," said Khalilah Sabra, executive director of the North Carolina-based Muslim American Society Immigrant Justice Center.
On Wednesday, Sabra got a call from a Syrian in the U.S. seeking to bring relatives over from a refugee camp in France via Mexico.
"He thought it was worth the chance. He said it was bad before; they were in a camp that had been bulldozed by the French, and after the attacks things became much worse and he is afraid for his family," Sabra said.
"I told him this is probably the worst time for him to try that," she said, because of "the tension at the border with the Border Patrol. I wouldn't be able to guarantee the safety of his family. The governors need time to cool off," she said.
Other Syrian families she has advised have made the trip, including a family whose relative in the U.S. paid $12,000 to get them to Mexico, then north into California at San Ysidro in September.
Sabra said the Syrian migrants do not fear encountering cartels and gangs as they cross northern Mexico, where violence has escalated recently. "When you've come from Syria, there's nothing left to frighten you," she said.
Once they reach the border, Syrians are subject to the same asylum and screening process used for other immigrants, and it's been stepped up in recent years in response to a surge of migrants from Central America. Some are detained, such as the family that arrived in Laredo, while others, such as the mother Sabra helped in San Ysidro, are released with ankle bracelets.
Moran, the Border Patrol union spokesman, would like to see additional screening not only of Syrian refugees but also asylum seekers before they are released in the U.S.
"We can't do a background check after the fact. We have to make sure these people are 100% vetted before they are allowed to walk freely on American soil," Moran said.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said the Syrians in Laredo highlight a larger threat.
He noted that this week, another group of Syrian migrants was detained in Honduras with fake Greek passports.
"If this group of Syrians was able to get to the border, what other Syrians can? It's an indication that we could have a problem," Krikorian said.
He said U.S. officials should pressure Mexico to stop issuing visas to Syrians and force those seeking asylum here to apply there instead.
Times staff writer Richard A. Serrano in Washington contributed to this report.