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A Syrian Christian, seeking asylum, wonders why he's in custody in Texas

A Syrian Christian, seeking asylum, wonders why he's in custody in Texas
Members of the Syrian People Solidarity Group demonstrate on Nov. 22 in Austin, Texas. The group protested comments by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who said he did not want Syrian refugees settling in the state. (Erich Schlegel / Getty Images)

After his village in Syria came under repeated rocket attacks earlier this year, the 32-year-old Christian barber knew he had to save his wife and two boys, ages 5 and 2.

He had once applied to immigrate to the United States, hoping to join his parents and sister, who live in California. But that process could take years, so in May he traded $50,000-worth of land to a smuggler who had the family fly first to Lebanon, then Turkey and Brazil, where they spent several months.

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From there, the land journey north began, up through Latin and Central America and, finally, Mexico, where they took a taxi to the border crossing in Nuevo Laredo last month. There they turned themselves over to U.S. authorities in the hope of receiving asylum.

"The whole time the family was together, the kids were well and I was watching over them," he said of the journey to Texas. "It was worth it. Then I arrived here and I was shocked by the treatment. I never imagined we would be put in prison, separated, and I would not be able to contact them at all, to watch over my kids."

The barber is among a handful of Syrian Christians who showed up at a Texas border crossing in November amid the national debate about screening Syrian refugees. In his first remarks to a reporter, the man spoke through an Arabic interpreter in a phone interview from a immigration detention center in south Texas. The call was facilitated by RAICES, a San Antonio-based legal aid group for immigrants.

The barber and another Syrian family of four who arrived at the Laredo border crossing on Nov. 17 insist they are fleeing religious persecution. He asked not to be identified because he fears family members back in Syria could face retaliation.

Arriving at the southern border, he said, "I expected that we would be interviewed and investigated for some time, but then we would be released."

Syrians who arrive at the border 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 immigrants are detained, while others are released with an ankle bracelet.

The two Syrian families, as well as a third Christian family who arrived Nov. 20, are still detained and fear they will not be released or reunited in time for Christmas. The women and children are being held at one Texas detention center, the men at another.

Immigration officials did not immediately respond to questions about why the barber's family was still detained.

The Department of Homeland Security has released statements saying that "officers took the group into custody and as a standard procedure, checked their identities against numerous law enforcement and national security related databases.

"Records checks revealed no derogatory information about the individuals."

Homeland Security officials said at the time that no further information would be released due to "privacy issues."

Texas is among more than two dozen states where governors have said they do not want Syrian refugees settled after the Paris attacks of Nov. 13, calling them a potential security risk. Texas officials filed suit in Dallas federal court to block the refugees. The case is pending.

The barber has been able to talk to his wife and sons only once by phone since they were detained, on Wednesday.

"We talked about our suffering. We did not expect to be treated like this, like criminals," he said. "She was crying most of the time."

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She said their sons are not doing well. They don't like the detention center food, and often cry.

"They want their dad," he said, especially after what happened last week, which had raised their hopes of a holiday family reunion. Last week, immigration officials told the barber's sister that his family would be released on Thursday, and to buy plane tickets, he said. They did. Then they were told the release would be postponed to Friday, then Monday, then indefinitely.

"Why can't they let the children be released to their grandparents for Christmas?" he said, noting that his parents hold green cards.

He was unaware that politicians have voiced suspicions about Syrian refugees and called for added security checks and screenings.

"We are not coming here to cause any damage…. We are not going to cause harm to America," he said.

Immigration officials know he is Christian, he said. He has showed them videos of his sons' baptisms (both have Christian first names).

He said he also showed the officials tattoos on his shoulder depicting a cross and Jesus. They took photos of the tattoos, he said, adding, "Isn't that enough?"

It's not clear how many Syrians in recent months have arrived at the border seeking asylum, as opposed to those brought to the U.S. legally as refugees.

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.

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.

In detention, the barber has no one to talk to, since he is being held apart from the other Syrian men, among immigrants who all speak Spanish.

He spends his days thinking about what will become of his family.

"I'm thinking, thinking, thinking like my head is going to explode," he said.

In Syria, he would spend three days this week celebrating Christmas: decorating the tree, watching Santa deliver gifts to the children, going to church and parties.

"I was hoping to spend it with my sister and parents in California," he said, his voice urgent. "After four years of civil war in Syria, I did not think my children would be in detention on Christmas. Not just that, we are separated from each other and we don't know when we will be released."

Twitter: @mollyhf

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