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Afghan soldier who was arrested at US-Mexico border after fleeing Taliban is granted asylum

HOUSTON (AP) — An Afghan soldier who fled the Taliban and traveled through nearly a dozen countries before being arrested at the Texas-Mexico border and detained for months has been granted asylum, allowing him to remain in the United States, his brother said Wednesday.

Abdul Wasi Safi, 27, is one of tens of thousands of Afghan citizens who fled to the U.S. following the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan in August 2021.

The soldier, called Wasi by family and friends, and his older brother, Sami Safi, worried that if Wasi Safi wasn't granted asylum, he could be sent back to Afghanistan, where he would likely be killed by the Taliban because he had worked with the U.S. military.

But Wasi Safi’s lawyer surprised the brothers Tuesday with news that his asylum request had been granted. The brothers, who live in Houston, had thought a decision wasn't coming until a Nov. 19 court hearing.

“I have tears of joy in my eyes,” Sami Safi said. “Now he can live here. Now he can be safe here.”

Olsa Alikaj-Cano, Wasi Safi’s immigration attorney, who represented him with his credible fear interview as well as with his asylum application before the Houston Immigration Court, said she and an attorney representing the federal government filed a joint motion on Friday asking an immigration judge to waive the November trial hearing and grant asylum.

But Alikaj-Cano said the judge's decision came after Wasi Safi was thoroughly vetted by the U.S. government. That included background checks, a strong asylum application with letters of support and questioning by immigration officials, all of which detailed the fear Wasi Safi felt over a possible return to Afghanistan, she said.

“It’s great news. It’s the true story of someone who’s done so much for our country and who deserves asylum. Asylum is meant to be issued to individuals like Wasi,” Alikaj-Cano said.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which handles immigration cases, didn’t immediately reply to an email seeking comment about Wasi Safi being granted asylum, which was first reported by the Military Times.

An intelligence officer for the Afghan National Security Forces, Wasi Safi made his way to Brazil last year. Last summer, he started a months-long journey on foot and by boat through raging rivers and dense jungle to the U.S., crossing 10 countries on his treacherous trek.

At the U.S.-Mexico border near Eagle Pass, Texas, Wasi Safi was arrested in September 2022 and spent several months in detention before being freed following intervention by lawyers and lawmakers.

Those working on Wasi Safi’s case say it highlights how America’s chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to harm Afghan citizens who helped the U.S. but were left behind.

Nearly 90,000 Afghans who worked with American soldiers as translators or in other capacities since 2001 have arrived in the U.S. on military planes since the chaotic withdrawal, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The Afghan Adjustment Act, a proposed law to streamline their immigration process, has stalled in Congress.

Other Afghans, like Wasi Safi, made their way to the U.S. on their own.

“This was supposed to happen because if you give so much sacrifice to a country’s government, to a country’s military who promised you ‘we will never leave our allies behind,’ it was the right thing for the government to do,” said Sami Safi, 30, who was a translator for the U.S. military and has lived in Houston since 2015.

Wasi Safi’s unresolved immigration status had meant he wasn’t authorized to work. By getting asylum, he will be able to apply for a work permit. One year after getting asylum, Wasi Safi will be able to apply to become a lawful permanent resident, or a green card holder, and four years after that he will be able to apply for U.S. citizenship, Alikaj-Cano said.

His brother said it will also help him focus on getting treatment for injuries he suffered during his journey to the U.S. A brutal beating by police officers in Panama severely damaged his teeth and jaw and left him with permanent hearing loss.

Sami Safi said getting his brother asylum is part of an effort that he hopes one day leads to bringing their parents and other siblings to the U.S. They continue facing threats in Afghanistan over Wasi Safi’s work with the U.S. military, Sami Safi said.

“They were full of joy after hearing about my brother. And we’re just only hoping and praying that we get to see them, we get to bring them here, so that my brothers and my sisters can pursue happiness and live a peaceful life,” he said.

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