Texas

Afghan soldier seeks asylum after being arrested at US-Mexico border

HOUSTON (AP) — Abdul Wasi Safi kept documents detailing his time as an Afghan soldier who worked with the US military close to him as he made the months-long treacherous journey from Brazil to the US-Mexico border.

He fled Afghanistan fearing retribution from the Taliban after the Americans withdrew in August 2021 and hoped the documents would give him asylum in the US. Despite the dense jungle, raging rivers and beatings, he kept these documents safe.

But after crossing the US-Mexico border near Eagle Pass, Texas, in September, Wasi Safi was arrested on federal immigration charges. He remains in a detention center in Eden, Texas, and fears his asylum application may be denied.

Wasya Safi’s brother, lawyers, military organizations and a bipartisan group of lawmakers working to free him say his case shows how the chaotic US troop withdrawal continues to hurt Afghan citizens who helped the US but were left behind.

Sami-ullah Safi holds photos of her brother Abdul Wasi Safi as he talks about his brother’s trip to the US during an interview Wednesday, January 18, 2023, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

“He tried his best to keep these certificates in the hope that as soon as he… presented the relevant documents at the southern border… he would be warmly welcomed and his merits would be appreciated and recognized,” said Sami-ullah Safi, his brother.

If sent back to Afghanistan, he could be killed by the Taliban, who have killed more than 100 Afghan officials and security forces since they came to power, according to a United Nations report.

“Honestly, it’s just embarrassing that we feel this way about people who helped protect our country,” said Jennifer Cervantes, one of Vasya Safi’s immigration lawyers.

Wasi Safi, 27, was an intelligence officer with the Afghan National Security Forces, providing US forces with information about terrorists, said Sami-ullah Safi, 29, who went by the pseudonym Sami.

Sami Safi has been an interpreter for the US military since 2010, which makes him eligible for a special immigration visa for interpreters and others paid by the US government. The visa allowed him to move to Houston in 2015.

But Vasi Safi was not eligible for this visa because he did not work directly in the US.

When American troops withdrew from Afghanistan, Wasi Safi went into hiding and learned that his friends in the Afghan army had been killed by the Taliban.

He was able to get a visa to Brazil and went there in 2022. But he realized it wasn’t much safer, as he and other migrants were beaten and robbed by gangs.

In the summer of 2022, Vasi Safi began his journey to the United States.

In this photo courtesy of Sami-ullah Safi, Abdul Wasi Safi (bottom right) takes a selfie near the Darien Gorge, the stretch of land separating Colombia and Panama, in the summer of 2022 during his 2022 trip to the US. AP Photo/Abdul Wasi Safi)

As he crossed a huge river in the Darien Gorge, an imposing and dangerous stretch of dense jungle between Colombia and Panama, Wasi Safi held a pack of documents over his head to keep them from getting wet.

According to his brother, when the police in Guatemala tried to extort money from him and took his backpack, Wasi Safi endured their beatings until his documents were returned to him.

On the way, Vasi Safi received serious injuries from beatings, including damaged front teeth and hearing loss in his right ear. Zachary Fertitta, one of his criminal defense lawyers, said Wasi Safi did not receive proper medical care while in custody. The GoFundMe page has been set up to help pay for medical care should it be released.

Sami Safi said his brother became disillusioned after being detained, believing that the documents he thought were supposed to save him were useless.

But Fertitta said those documents show that “he is clearly an ally, trained with our troops, worked with our troops.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Houston, sent a letter to President Joe Biden last week asking him to pardon Wasya Safi on immigration-related charges. On Thursday, she said his papers show he was “a man who clearly loved this country … and was prepared to die for this country.”

Republican Congressmen Dan Crenshaw of Texas and Michael Waltz of Florida, as well as more than 20 veterans’ groups, have also called for Wasya Safi’s release while his asylum application is pending.

The White House declined to comment on Friday, redirecting questions to the Justice Department and US Customs and Border Protection. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, which is handling his case with the Justice Department, as well as the Customs and Border Protection Service, did not immediately respond to emails asking for comment.

During a press conference on Tuesday, US Air Force Pentagon spokesman Brig. General Patrick Ryder said he could not comment on the Wasya Safi case, but the Defense Department “supports any effort we can make to ensure proper care” for the country’s Afghan allies.

Fertitta said Vasya Safi’s criminal case must first be decided before his asylum application can be considered, and he hopes the decision will not include a conviction that could jeopardize the asylum claim.

Nearly 76,000 Afghans who have worked with US soldiers since 2001 as translators, interpreters and partners have arrived in the US on military planes after their chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. But their immigration status remains unclear after Congress failed to pass a proposed law, the Afghanistan Settlement Act, that would strengthen their legal residence status.

Fertitta said the Wasi Safi case highlights the country’s “broken immigration system” and her failure to help Afghan allies.

“All these things are colliding at our border, and it is very difficult to solve this problem,” said Fertitta.

Sami-ullah Safi talks about her brother’s trip to the US during an interview on Wednesday, January 18, 2023 in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Sami Safi said he was still hopeful.

“I hope that President Biden and those with authority over this case will take action and save his life. He has made enough sacrifices for this country. My whole family has sacrificed this country,” he said.

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Associated Press contributor Aamer Madhani of Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: twitter.com/juanlozano70



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