Muslim Asylum Seekers Face a Unique Plight at the US-Mexico Border

Even if they cross the frontier, the migrants' long journeys from Africa and Central Asia are far from over

Muslim Asylum Seekers Face a Unique Plight at the US-Mexico Border
A section of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. (Ken Chitwood)

It’s late afternoon in Tijuana, and the air is hot and thick. Hamza — a slight Ghanaian man in his 20s — rests in the back of a white pickup truck parked outside a migrant shelter. Six other men sit with him. They hardly exchange a word. Instead, they stare at the rusted steel fence some 700 feet away that marks the U.S.-Mexico border. All hope to someday cross that border, claim asylum in the States and start a new life. Physically close, they are still so far away.

It has been a long, difficult journey for Hamza. (Like other migrants interviewed for this story, he asked that New Lines publish only his first name, out of his fear of legal repercussions.) Four months earlier, he had left Ghana for Brazil, hoping to make his way to the U.S. and find a job that would allow him to send enough money back home to support his growing family. His departure was on the Eid al-Fitr holiday — an auspicious time for many Muslims. The next day, his daughter, Fatima, was born.

Without a visa to travel beyond Brazil, it took Hamza three arduous months to make his way to Mexico. First, he traversed the Amazon and cut across Colombia. Then he walked over mountains and waded through rivers to reach Panama. To get through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, he mostly hitchhiked and took buses.

When he finally crossed the border into southern Mexico, he paid smugglers to help him navigate 160 miles along the treacherous route known as the Migrant Trail. Along the way, he tells me, he dodged Mexican immigration agents and bandits, saw dead bodies hidden in the bush and witnessed men being beaten and women sexually assaulted. He scarcely ate or drank and often felt so weak he could barely carry on.

Eventually, he arrived at Arriaga, a municipality in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, where he took one of the many freight trains that thunder north toward the U.S. border. To survive, he had to trust the smugglers and others with whom he traveled. None was from Ghana. None shared his faith. Most spoke only Spanish. Though Hamza speaks fluent English, he does not understand even basic Spanish. To communicate, Hamza said, “I had to rely on gestures and facial expressions.”

When he finally made it to Tijuana, Hamza spent a month bouncing from shelter to shelter, struggling with the language and culture as he tried to find a legal way into the U.S. He missed his home and family. He longed for the comforts of halal food and his daily cycle of prayer, which he struggled to maintain. Like the other Muslim migrants he would soon encounter in Tijuana, he felt lost — but also that he had no choice but to carry on.

Tijuana has long been a hub for migrants. Hundreds of thousands arrive there annually before trying to cross the border into the U.S. There are no publicly available statistics on the number of Muslims among them, but Hamza is far from the only one. Humanitarian organizations like the Latina Muslim Foundation of San Diego can say only that they are noticing more and more Muslim migrants — from Chechnya, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere — passing through Mexico as they make their way north.

Whether leaving home because of war, politics or lack of opportunity, every migrant faces steep obstacles in trying to enter the U.S., from the threat of kidnapping, extortion and arrest along the route to the convoluted U.S. immigration and asylum systems. But Muslim migrants in particular also face additional hardships: language and cultural barriers, religious discrimination and Islamophobia.

At the same time, legal pathways for migrants have shifted constantly from one U.S. administration to the next. President Barack Obama prioritized deporting migrants with criminal records while offering a way for some undocumented immigrants, namely those who came to the U.S. as children, to become citizens.

The Donald Trump administration terminated many of Obama’s programs and adopted a stricter stance. It infamously separated thousands of children from their parents at the border, leading to widespread protests and a series of court battles that ultimately overturned the policy. It also required certain asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases were processed, effectively barring claims for tens of thousands of people.

The Joe Biden administration ended that so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy but has still expelled millions of migrants to Mexico or their respective home countries, thanks to Title 42, a rarely used section of U.S. code employed by President Trump during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the current administration sought to end these restrictions, U.S. courts prevented it from doing so. Title 42 is likely to end next month and, while the White House expanded opportunities for migrants from certain countries, it also proposed new rules intended to prevent a more general surge at the southern border. Asylum seekers and other migrants without valid documentation, for instance, have to use a new mobile app to schedule appointments for U.S. authorities to consider letting them cross the border. The proposed regulations would mean that migrants like Hamza could be quickly turned away or deported if they try to cross without prior authorization.

The end result, says Sonia Tinoco García, the founder and president of the Latina Muslim Foundation and its Tijuana shelter, Albergue Assabil, which caters to Muslim migrants, is even more confusion, frustration and uncertainty. That’s especially true for those like Hamza, who don’t speak Spanish and struggle to keep up with ever-changing rules in the U.S.

“The situation,” she tells me, “changes all the time.”

Because he left his country for mostly economic reasons, Hamza knows his chances of immigrating to the States are slim. This gives him few choices other than remaining in Mexico or making the dangerous trek across the Anza-Borrego badlands or Sonoran Desert to arrive in the U.S. without documentation.

“I’ve done everything I can for my family, for Fatima, to get here,” he tells me. “I don’t know if I will be successful. But I have to try.” In the meantime, he has found a temporary home at Albergue Assabil, where he has met fellow Muslims, including some from Ghana, and enjoyed at least a few of the comforts of home — food, familiar language, prayer.

García, the shelter’s founder, is a quiet woman who favors wide-brimmed hats and bright clothing. She grew up in a large family in a village of roughly 200 people near La Paz in the Mexican state of Baja California. She moved to the Los Angeles area in 1996, after marrying her husband, a migrant from Lebanon, and converting to Islam.

Sonia Tinoco García, president and founder of the Latina Muslim Foundation, goes over paperwork with a migrant from West Africa at the Albergue Assabil shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. (Ken Chitwood)

Beginning in 2014, García began visiting Tijuana with a group of fellow Latina Muslim converts she knew from the San Diego area. Their goal was to help migrants, especially children and mothers. The more time she spent in Tijuana, the more Muslims she saw arriving in the city to cross the border. At shelter after shelter, meanwhile, she witnessed staff too overwhelmed to cater to Muslim migrants’ unique needs.

“There were Muslims who didn’t feel safe in the shelters, because they were being discriminated against or questioned because of their faith,” says Angie Gely, a staff member at Albergue Assabil.

As a result, some would avoid the shelters altogether, struggling to find their own way on the streets or seeking help from Muslims at Centro Islámico de Baja — Tijuana’s only mosque at the time. Other shelters “didn’t have the time or money,” says García, “to provide halal food, to provide adequate space for prayer, or even understand their situations are different from those of migrants from Central America or elsewhere.”

García and the other Latina Muslim volunteers understood those differences and found ways to communicate and connect with Muslim arrivals.

“Being Latina, being Muslim,” says Gely, “our families crossed the border to the U.S. too. We know what it is to be in the minority. To not be understood. To face ignorance and racism. We can relate.”

Little by little, García and her partners began to focus on helping Muslims in Tijuana. They covered the cost of their hotel rooms, provided them with food and clothing, and connected them with organizations that offered legal aid — all thanks to donations from Muslims in San Diego and Orange counties in Southern California. As her reputation grew, García started to receive calls whenever Muslim migrants arrived at other shelters in the border city. If they didn’t speak English or Spanish, García would tap volunteers from the Islamic Center of San Diego who spoke Arabic, Urdu or Farsi.

The language gap is especially challenging. Most shelters are equipped to assist migrants only in English or Spanish. They don’t have the interpreters or resources to do much else, says Juan Manuel, a lawyer working with Habesha, a partnership between the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Mexico and DIME, a Mexican humanitarian organization. “There is not enough information or legal aid for any migrant,” Manuel says. “If you don’t speak Spanish or English, it’s going to be all but impossible to access services or legal information.”

One afternoon last fall, at the Proyecto Salesiano Tijuana, a Catholic mission congregation, migrants sit and wait to receive final instructions from volunteers. At the front of the room are about 20 migrants from Central and South America. In the back are a mix of Afghans and Chechens who do not speak Spanish. As the volunteers explain important legal information about the asylum process, the Chechens and Afghans look around, confused. “How are we supposed to understand this?” one of them asks, as his 5-year-old daughter bounces on his lap. He is nervous that the vital details he and his family miss could mean the difference between asylum or deportation.

With such moments in mind, García created the Latina Muslim Foundation in 2017. Over the next five years, the foundation raised over $200,000 to build the two-story, 8,000-square-foot shelter that would become Albergue Assabil, which opened in March 2022. Today, the shelter features separate men’s and women’s facilities, a prayer area, halal food, Quran classes and legal services. It has quickly become a hub for Muslim migrants like Hamza, serving over 1,000 Muslim migrants in its first year of operation alone.

The arrival of such migrants in the U.S. is exactly what people like Todd Bensman say they fear. A fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigration think tank, he traveled to Tijuana in 2022 to investigate García’s shelter. His conclusion: The people it serves are potential terrorists and the shelter itself is a national security threat.

Bensman’s accusations rely more on innuendo and Islamophobic tropes than anything concrete. He insinuates that migrants at the shelter require extra vetting because of their religion and countries of origin, while citing no evidence for the danger they supposedly pose. García has twice contacted Mexican authorities with suspicions about particular people she encountered and says she would work with U.S. or Mexican law enforcement if they ever requested her assistance. Beyond that, even Bensman admitted that there is no evidence that anyone who passed through the shelter has actually been a potential terrorist. Yet, in his writing, which speaks to a general trend, Bensman has turned a spotlight on Albergue Assabil, claiming that U.S. and Mexican authorities are not doing enough to monitor the shelter and the migrants who stay there.

Bensman’s center is controversial, with its reports frequently flagged by scholars, fact-checkers and news outlets as misleading or false. But Bensman’s fears echo those of many conservative political activists and media outlets who, over the past two decades, have warned of alleged Muslim terrorists crossing the southern border as migrants. That menace has failed to materialize. To date, no Muslim who arrived via that route has successfully carried out a terror attack on U.S. soil. Nor is there any compelling evidence of any imminent or significant threat.

Yet that hasn’t stopped influential figures from promoting such fears. Over the past decade, in fact, they have become increasingly mainstream. In the 2012 Republican presidential primary, for example, candidates Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and even Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, warned of Islamist militant groups sneaking across the border from Latin America, disguised as migrants. In testimony to Congress in 2015, Gen. John Kelly — when he was in charge of the U.S. Southern Command and before he became Trump’s secretary of homeland security — issued similar warnings, saying that terrorists could use Latin American smuggling routes to “move operatives with intent to cause grave harm to our citizens or even bring weapons of mass destruction into the United States.” Trump himself did much to popularize these fears, warning of “sleeper cells” of Islamist extremists in Latin America and citing bogus stories about “prayer rugs” found in the desert to rally support for his planned extensions of the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Such claims trickle down to ordinary voters in border states like Arizona. Take Dale Dunning, for instance, a 68-year-old Republican voter I met on a balmy summer day in Payson, Arizona.

“It strikes the fear of God in me to think that terrorists can be making their way freely across the border, whether legally or illegally,” he tells me. “I think it endangers Arizona, our country, my family.”

Dunning’s views on Muslim migrants have been informed in large part by Tom Morrissey, a former U.S. marshal and former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party. Claiming to have been disturbed by what he learned in law enforcement, Morrissey co-wrote a 2017 novel, “The Way of the Shadow Wolves: The Deep State and the Hijacking of America,” along with the 1990s-era action star Steven Segal. The book centers on a fictional Arizona tribal police officer who helps to investigate a “deep state” cover-up involving Mexican cartels that transport Muslim jihadists across the border to attack the U.S. The book is fiction, but it resonated with many on the right in Arizona, from ordinary people like Dunning to former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who called it “less than a hair’s breadth from the frightening truth of what is actually happening today.” Arpaio, once a powerful figure among Republicans, recently lost his third political comeback bid since 2016, when he was ousted from his sheriff’s role because of a combination of legal problems and bombastic politics.

In an interview, Morrissey tells me he doesn’t have a problem with Muslims per se but worries they aren’t being properly vetted when they cross into the U.S. He believes that, as in his book, cartels and terrorists could join forces.

Never mind that many Muslim migrants have, in fact, faced increased vetting when they arrive in the States. Over the past two decades, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has found, U.S. immigration officers have been singling out Muslims for what it calls “invasive religious questioning” as they try to enter the country. These migrants are interrogated about the particulars of their religious background, according to the ACLU, which reports that numerous Muslims have been stopped at the border and questioned about their beliefs and practices. Representing a group of three such Muslims, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection in March 2022.

In a public statement about the suit, the ACLU said, “No one should feel pressured to hide their faith at our nation’s borders.”

Despite all the challenges they face, Muslim migrants remain determined to press ahead.

Nawid and Muhammad are two such migrants. Both fled Afghanistan in August 2021, after the U.S. withdrawal. Roughly a year later, I meet them at the Albergue Assabil shelter as they sit and chat on a bench in its central patio.

Nawid, in his 20s, is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and dark blue sweatpants. He explains that he fled Afghanistan because his father had worked as a driver for reporters for a U.S. radio station. That alone could have made him a target for the Taliban. He and 13 members of his family have sponsors in the U.S. but are still waiting for paperwork to be finalized. They fled first to Pakistan in September 2021, then to Turkey and on to Mexico City, where they spent four months waiting for news from their sponsors. From there, their contacts at the radio station advised them to make their way to Tijuana to claim asylum at the border. The journey was exhausting and Nawid, who has been at the shelter for a week, is worried about what comes next. “Translating for my whole family, writing back and forth with the sponsors, processing all the paperwork, meeting with the lawyer, sitting around the shelter just waiting for our day. And that’s just to get there,” he tells me. “Then the real work begins — starting a new life.”

Muhammad, a well-built 30-something with a tightly trimmed beard, worked as a civil engineer and translator for the U.S. military. He has been at the shelter for just a few days and is preparing to leave soon for the U.S. He likewise has a sponsor waiting in the U.S. Yet he knows that many hurdles still lie ahead. “Now that I’m crossing the border, it’s like I’ve finally, really left Afghanistan,” he tells me.

“I will live in a place where, if I’m honest, I know I’m not truly wanted or fully welcomed. That makes me sad. And terrified.”

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