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Human Rights

The Kurdish Refugees at the Southern Border

In the freezing desert winds of Jacumba, 90 miles east of San Diego, California, Omer and his friends spent much of their afternoon picking up trash. The thousands of water bottles that are distributed each week have ended up littered across the landscape or been burned at night, and they wanted to help clean up the fragile high desert environment that had briefly become their home.

When Omer first set foot in the United States, walking through a gap in the border wall, he and his friends were met by Border Patrol agents who gave them wristbands denoting the day they arrived. These wristbands help U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) remove asylum seekers for processing in the order of arrival. But even with this system in place, many of the Kurdish men I spoke to had spent several nights sleeping outside in temperatures that hover around freezing.

Omer said he spent two nights shivering by a fire in the high desert. “At first, we didn’t think we would need a shelter,” he said. “But at night it was so cold, I just sat really close to the fire to stay warm. Imagine if I had fallen asleep and fallen into the fire.”

Like thousands of other migrants in the past three months, the young Kurdish men were detained by CBP for several nights in an Open Air Detention Site (OADS) on the southern border. Some will not spend a night in the camps—especially women and children, who are taken first. Others have spent as many as six days in outdoor detention, where, most of the time, the only services are provided by a group of local volunteers.

CBP denies that these sites are detention facilities, calling them migrant “gathering areas.” But when one group of Kurdish migrants left to walk several miles to a local Subway, they were met by CBP personnel and told to return to the camps once they’d finished eating their lunch.

“It was very cold, ” Omer says, adding that the worst part of his journey from Turkey to the U.S. was his time in these open air detention sites. He also expressed his thanks to the volunteers who have been feeding migrants and providing them with blankets, water, and medical aid. When I went to meet him in his new home in Orange County, after he was released from CBP custody, he remembered some of them by name.

When a bus arrives to take people for processing, there is often a mad dash among migrants, who are understandably desperate to be removed from the terrible detention conditions. Some Kurdish migrants refuse to participate in this practice, choosing to wait and perhaps spend longer in the outdoor detention sites rather than participate in the undignified ritual of grabbing all their belongings and sprinting for a van that may or may not be assigned to take them.

Omer, like the majority of the Kurdish migrants in the camps, came from northern Kurdistan, located in what is now southeastern Turkey. Although many of them preferred not to be interviewed on the record, the Kurdish migrants all shared similar stories of life becoming more difficult for them in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey—and the costly and dangerous process of their travel to the United States.

In Omer’s case, life in the Kurdish-majority city of Batman had become more dangerous. He feared the ascendance of Kurdish Hezbollah, an Islamist group that had killed two of his uncles, one of whom was a human rights activist, in the 1990s. “They killed my people,” he said. HUDA-PAR, seen as the political arm of the group, won multiple parliamentary seats in alliance with Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party in the May 2023 elections. Many Kurds believe the Turkish state is once again using the Islamists to target secular pro-Kurdish politics, as it did 30 years ago.

Although his mother won’t leave the town she has spent her whole life in and the site of his father’s grave, Omer wants to make a new life for himself in the United States. Economic conditions in the region are worsening, he said, and when he and his friends attempted to move to western Turkey, they were met with bigotry and discrimination. Despite being a qualified PE teacher and having taken an Erasmus trip to Portugal to study, he found it impossible to get a job in his field— an outcome he attributes to his mixed Kurdish and Armenian ancestry. Once he saw Erdogan re-elected, Omer decided he had to move to a safer place—and so began to plan for the long journey to California.

U.S. asylum law provides protections for people persecuted due to race, religion, nationality, political views, or membership of a particular social group. Persecution based on ethnicity has been recognized as potential grounds for a claim in many cases as well. Although U.S. foreign policy and immigration law are not necessarily in lockstep, and every case is different, granting Kurds from Turkey asylum en masse would contradict Washington’s stance that Turkey, seen as a key NATO ally,  is a multi-ethnic democracy.

Like many other migrants, Omer’s friend Veysel, a champion wrestler who says he was not selected for the national team in Turkey because he is Kurdish, crossed the border carrying a visa rejection letter from the U.S. Embassy in Istanbul with him. Many of the Kurdish migrants I spoke to had attempted to apply for visas and been rejected. In Veysel’s case, he even had an invitation to train at a top wrestling program in the United States. Many had also attempted to apply for an asylum interview using CBP’s deeply flawed CBP ONE app, but had given up on using the software, which frequently crashes and is not available in Kurdish.

Like many others, after exhausting these pathways, Omer flew to Cancun—where Turkish citizens can more easily obtain tourist visas—before taking a bus to Tijauna. Omer didn’t share any details of his journey from there, but another migrant says that he paid ten thousand dollars to what migrants call a “travel agent” to be moved from Tijuana to the border, and then walked several miles across undulating rocky terrain. Another migrant in the same group overheard this conversation and shared that he had paid $13,000 for the same trip.

Once they are removed from the OADS, migrants are generally “processed” by CBP and then released pending a hearing on their eligibility for asylum. Although these hearings are often a year or more in the future, many migrants are not authorized to work in the interim. They must also find six to ten thousand dollars to fund their legal representation.

Among the volunteers who provide food, water, shelter, and blankets to the migrants, Kurdish asylum seekers have been recognized for their willingness to help. I often found myself ladling out beans while Kurdish young men spooned out rice and handed water bottles to other refugees waiting patiently in line for one of their two meals each day. I also witnessed one group of Kurdish young men get out of their tent to brave a near-freezing night outside when young children arrived in the camp without shelter.

On the warmer evenings, after taking care of distributing food and blankets, I shared tea, cigarettes, and traditional dances with some of the Kurdish migrants,  joined by the Chinese and Colombian friends they made in their time in detention. Some of the Kurdish migrants were among the many Kurds from Turkey who fought in the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) or Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Many share photos of family members who were martyred in the battle against ISIS. This experience is so common that some volunteers have learned to say “Şehid Namirin,” Kurdish for ‘martyrs never die,’ in response to the yellow or green-backed portraits.

Many of these SDF martyrs, and the veterans coming to the United States, would have fought alongside U.S. and allied troops as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led mission against ISIS in North and East Syria. Yet at the same time, these people and their families have been persecuted within Turkey and often bombed by Turkish drones and warplanes while conducting their missions against ISIS in Syria.

Despite partnering with the SDF against ISIS, Washington considers Turkey a key ally. The U.S. continues to sell weapons to Turkey—including the F-16s that are often used to bomb SDF forces, power infrastructure, and even hospitals inside the Kurdish-led self administered areas of Syria.

Since the territorial defeat of ISIS nearly five years ago, the U.S. and other Coalition countries have refused or failed to put forward a strategy for a political settlement that could end the uncertainty. This contradictory policy has resulted in many Kurdish people feeling they have little choice but to leave for the country that has presented itself as a friend and ally.

With winter conditions in Jacumba showing no sign of improvement, detention in the camps is becoming even more unpleasant. I spent much of last week with a group of young Kurdish and Russian men building shelters that will help stave off the worst of the winds that whip through the camps from the mountain passes to the east. But with overnight lows below freezing and only blankets and fires for warmth, conditions in the detention sites are life threatening, especially for the young, old, and medically compromised.

Today, Omer is glad to be safely in Orange County and out of the desert, and excited to finally be in the United States. “I came here because I want to live in peace with people of other nations,” he says. “In America, the presidents change, this is good! In Turkey it is just one guy. I want to get a job, to do my job, and to improve myself here.” With a year until his asylum hearing, Omer and hundreds of other Kurdish asylum seekers will spend their first year in the United States hoping that he is allowed to stay in the country he says has always been a friend of the Kurdish people.

(Photo: Joe Orellana)

About the Author

James Stout


James Stout is a journalist and historian with an interest in anarchism and anti-fascism. His first book looked at the anti-fascist Popular Olympics of 1936. His forthcoming second book will focus on anarchists at war. He recently returned fr…

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