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Circuitous Path to Asylum Raises National Security Concerns

Second in a three-part series

Audio

Federal agents say people who may pose a terror threat are slipping into San Diego from Mexico. In the second of a three-part series, federal agents tell KPBS Investigative Reporter Amita Sharma that some are using political asylum to enter.

Somalis Settling In San Diego, Challenges Remain

San Diego has one of the largest Somali communities in the nation. Many Somalis are immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico. Their circuitous path is raising concerns among intelligence officials at a time when the Somali terror group, al-Shabab, is recruiting from the U.S.

San Diego has one of the largest Somali communities in the nation. Many Somalis are immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico. Their circuitous path is raising concerns among intelligence officials at a time when the Somali terror group, al-Shabab, is recruiting from the U.S.

— Each week, five to 10 East Africans arrive at the U.S. ports of entry in San Diego from Mexico. Many are Somali. They are often well-dressed, young men fluent in English. They ask for political asylum from war-torn Somalia. Federal agents in San Diego spoke about these cases to KPBS on condition of anonymity. They say a majority of these claims are legitimate. But they say there are strong indications that others are not.

As one agent told KPBS, "We are responsible for the security and safety of the people of the United States and we really don't know who is coming."

Federal investigators say Somalis are entering with inadequate identification at a time when the Al-Qaeda-linked Somali Islamist group al-Shabab has threatened to attack the United States. And they say the Somalis are taking a suspicious route.

They're traveling from Somalia to Kenya where they obtain false passports and fly to Cuba. From Cuba, they travel to Central America. Human smugglers take the Somalis by truck to Mexico. There, the Somalis surrender themselves to immigration officials, whom the agents say, accept their names and take their pictures without verification. Then the Somalis are given expulsion documents. They fly to Tijuana and walk across the border into the United States where the expulsion documents give them the ID they need to ask for political asylum.(Story continues below)

Somali Refugees' Route to San Diego

Former FBI agent Erroll Southers says that's troubling. "It's an incredibly, how should I say this, complicated, circuitous route they're using," Southers said.

Federal agents say the cost of the entire journey can be $60,000.

Chris Harnisch is a former research analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. "Most Somalis aren't earning $2 a day, so most Somalis, especially refugees are not going to have the money to do this," Harnisch said.

Harnisch believes these Somalis could be funded by al-Shabab.

But there could be other reasons. He's the former director of policy and planning for Customs and Border Protection. He says the Somalis' journey might be financed by relatives or non-governmental organizations.

"That's the kind of thing that would come out in the asylum interviews to smoke out whether there are nefarious things behind these journeys," Stodder said.

But vetting asylum claims is not easy. One agent says the stories the asylum seekers tell are all the same. He says when you start poking holes in the stories, the lies become obvious.

Federal agents say part of the asylum process includes checking the names of the asylum seekers through U.S. criminal databases. But, if they've never been to America, there won't be any criminal record of them. That is the sum total of the investigation. Authorities only check international databases if there's a special reason.

People who cross the border seeking asylum, are taken into custody. Most are released in about two months pending the granting of asylum. But federal agents say the government is not doing a good job of tracking them. Some have disappeared. Most who do return are seldom turned down for asylum even if they lack authentic identification. But Stodder says that's not unusual.

"Some asylum seekers leaving tyrannical regimes. They have to obtain false documents to actually leave the country or else perhaps they could be apprehended by the tyrannical regime and be tortured," he said.

But a federal agent tells KPBS "What people here should realize is how broken our political asylum system is. People have gotten through who pose a terrorism risk."

This year, a Pennsylvania man was indicted on charges he smuggled 300 Somalis into the U.S. from Mexico and that a number of them were members of Al-Shabab.

Al-Shabab expert Chris Harnisch says the terrorist group appears to have found another flaw in the United States' political asylum system.

"Clearly not every Somali that makes that trip from southern Somalia to Mexico all the way up to San Diego is going to be a member of Al-Shabab, Harnisch said. "But it only takes one or two Somalis to be members of Al-Shabab to pose a threat to the United States."

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