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Getting smuggled from Afghanistan to Texas is easier than thought

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Getting smuggled from Afghanistan to Texas is easier than thought

Todd Bensman

The United States has long bestowed immigration rewards on Iraqis and Afghans who assist our troops in “War on Terror” combat zones. Our government has granted special immigrant visas and legal permanent residence in America, for instance, to thousands of Iraqi and Afghan linguists, logistics personnel, and forward operating base employees who might be targeted for their service to our cause, especially after significant U.S. troop withdrawals.

Too often, though, some of the beneficiaries have repaid the favor with betrayal.

Another such case surfaced late last week, when the Department of Justice published a press release about a new indictment alleging that Mujeeb Rahman Saify, a former Afghan interpreter for U.S. forces, conspired (while living in New Jersey) with a Pakistan-based smuggling network to transport at least two other Afghans through Mexico and over the U.S. southern border in 2016 and 2017. Of special significance in the case is the allegation that one of the Afghans whose smuggling Saify is alleged to have successfully arranged was an interpreter fired from U.S. Army employment as a security threat and who had been denied one of the special immigrant visas on that basis.

The Indisputable National Security Threat at the Southern Border

That long-haul human smugglers based in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan anonymously transport immigrants of often unknown personal histories from Muslim-majority countries over our southern border should come as no surprise to regular readers of the CIS blog. The Center has frequently published reports documenting that this rarified kind of smuggling occurs and, among U.S. Department of Homeland Security professionals, is regarded as an authentic national security threat and should be addressed alongside broader issues of southern border insecurity.

As recently as last week, I wrote of the arrest of the long-pursued Nicaraguan smuggler “Mama Africa”, who supplied a crucial transportation link for thousands of immigrants from Muslim-majority nations through Latin America to the U.S. border. In May, I wrote of the Mexico-based Jordanian smuggler who is being prosecuted in Texas for transporting Yemeni migrants over the Rio Grande, including several on terror watch lists. I have written of other similar cases.

An examination of the available federal court records on Saify reinforces the existence of already well-documented smuggling methods from places like Afghanistan through Mexico. But the transportation of someone regarded as a national security threat is not very often revealed in public fashion like this due to classification and sensitivities. Here’s what the court records tell us so far:

A Rare Glimpse of a Security-Risk Immigrant

According to an unsealed federal complaint, Saify was granted entry as a legal permanent resident in 2009 on a special immigrant visa after his service to American troops. He settled in New York and, later, in Newark, N.J. In 2016, Saify decided to bring in at least the two Afghans. This benefit coincided with the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, which Congress extended to interpreters for the U.S. government in Afghanistan whose lives were threatened because of their work.

Ordinarily, U.S.-based “fixers” and “facilitators” of such smugglers are in it for a cut of the pie. But the records only indicate that Saify brought in two Afghans, and it remains unclear whether this was for personal friendship favors or for profit. One of the two Afghans Saify is accused of having arranged to bring in is identified in other court records as “Alien-2”, or Wasiq Ullah Hedayat, a wannabe interpreter for the U.S. military “who was terminated from his employment for being a security risk based on his association with a foreign intelligence service.”

Nowhere else do the court filings indicate the nature of the security risk or identify the foreign intelligence service. In a place like Afghanistan, it could be any of a number of countries, from Iran to Russia. But the intelligence on Hedayat was evidently so derogatory that he was never able to qualify for the special visa that Saify got in 2009. After trying the legal way, Hedayat opted for the underground railroad.

Saify was more than willing to oblige and clearly had a trust relationship with operatives of a Pakistan-based human smuggling organization that put itself out there as a Peshawar travel agency during 2016 and 2017. Both clients paid about $10,000 each on the front end for fraudulent documents, airfare, safe houses, and all the other infrastructure necessary for the clandestine, long-distance movement of people.

Saify sometimes communicated with a man named “Hayat Khan” in arranging for Hedayat to be smuggled in to Brownsville, Texas, where he crossed on January 19, 2018, and applied for asylum.

The discovery of him and the derogatory past intelligence about him is likely what led ICE Homeland Security Investigations to open up a counter-smuggling investigation. For what it’s worth, my initial sense is that Saify was more likely than not involved in the smuggling-for-profit scheme as someone who could fish for new clients to feed into the network, especially because he physically traveled back to Afghanistan to make things happen. If a profit motive was invoked, then no doubt he brought in far more than merely the two who form the basis for this case.

A Sophisticated Operation as Such Operations Go

To get both Afghans across the U.S. border at roughly the same time, Saify and the Pakistani co-conspirators used fraudulent Moroccan, Bolivian, and Peruvian passports and visas indicating fake names under real photographs. They had fake “letters of invitation”, electronic visas, and papers indicating finite hotel reservations that matched bogus return-flight itineraries. All of this was necessary for the transcontinental flights over oceans required for this kind of smuggling.

Saify didn’t merely arrange these dealings from afar; he was present on the ground in Afghanistan and actually flew legs of the journey with the clients. Again, this is not unusual for long-haul human smugglers to do.

The smuggling group had someone on the inside at the Sao Paulo airport who helped them bypass immigration checkpoints and on to a safe house in the city for staging of the journey’s balance, which included air tickets to El Salvador. Brazil is one of the most desirable countries in the Western Hemisphere for long-haul human smugglers to initially land their cargo, mainly due to the ease with which airport inspections are corruptible.

Such were the security concerns surrounding him that Hedayat was continually kept in Arizona and Florida detention facilities, rather than to be allowed to make bond pending asylum claims and appeals, as is eventually more usual for such aliens.

A homeland security detainer likely was invoked to keep Hedayat in custody because, after his Brownsville crossing, an immigration judge ruled him inadmissible “on security grounds”, one government filing said, and also ineligible for any relief for the same reasons. After exhausting his appeals, Hedayat was ordered deported as of April 10, 2018.

We know some of this because Saify’s defense mounted an argument that he may need Hedayat as a defense witness beyond April 2018 and would be denied proper justice if Hedayat were deported. In one of its motions, the U.S. government argued that he would eventually need to be deported “due to national security concerns surrounding Hedayat’s continued presence in the United States, and a significant risk that the Department of Homeland Security will be increasingly unable to effect the removal of Hedayat the longer he remains.”

What It Means

Like others before it, the Saify case serves as a reminder of a national security problem with the southern border that is neither addressed nor acknowledged as well as it should be: That smuggling bridges exist connecting the border to places like Afghanistan and can carry in malevolent actors alongside any benevolent ones.

But the case also demonstrates that policy choices regarding legal immigration benefits will often drive people to exploit those vulnerabilities at the physical land border, as a logical clandestine alternative, using just this kind of long-haul smuggling.

President Donald Trump has substantially scaled back the special visa program for Afghans and Iraqis alike, on grounds no doubt in line with his administration’s often-stated belief that it must be balanced by a need to reduce America’s risk of harm from when it is inevitably abused. In this case, Hedayat was successfully blocked and filtered out of the system on national security grounds. Even had he become subject to the Trump administration’s bureaucratic constriction of the visa program, Hedayat would not have been stopped, because he knew he could get in over the border for $10,000.

This is a lesson that Congress and the White House should take to heart if they ever choose to more effectively address the long-haul smuggling problem at the border, as I have suggested, in these eight ways.

Todd Bensman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. Bensman previously led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division (ICD) for nearly a decade.

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