An Afghan soldier fleeing the Taliban spent months reaching the U.S. to request asylum. He was arrested at the Texas border.

Abdul Wasi Safi stands in the foreground of Afghan military vehicles surrounded by dirt-filled barriers and concrete bunkers. Wasi, who helped the Afghan military fight the Taliban, left the country fearing for his life. He was arrested earlier this year after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border trying to reach his brother who had immigrated to Houston and became a U.S. citizen. (Courtesy Of Sami-Ullah Safi., Courtesy Of Sami-Ullah Safi.)

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DEL RIO — Two brothers stand across from each other at the Val Verde Correctional Facility in this border city, speaking reverently through the fixed telephones. They are separated by the visiting room’s thick glass partition, too energized to sit.

One brother, Abdul Wasi Safi, wears an inmate’s bright orange uniform. The other brother, Sami-ullah Safi, wears a blue blazer, jeans and a look of determination to bring his brother home safely.

About 18 months ago, Abdul Wasi Safi, whose family calls him Wasi, was a newly minted officer in Afghanistan’s special forces, working alongside U.S. troops to combat the Taliban in the longest U.S. military engagement in its history.

Just three months later, the U.S. abruptly exited the country. The Taliban — an Islamic fundamentalist group — took control of the country and began hunting down those who had helped the Americans.

Over the course of the conflict there, the U.S. issued special visas to more than 34,000 Afghans who qualified for various reasons — including Sami, who in 2015 moved to Houston. Sami, 29, had been working side by side with the U.S. military as an interpreter for special forces in Afghanistan. For years, he traveled between the two countries and in July 2021 was granted full U.S. citizenship.

Abdul Wasi Safi stands with his hands behind his back at ease for a photo with others in his Afghan special forces unit. He wears the rank and insignia of a Dvahomi baridman, or second lieutenant.

Abdul Wasi Safi stands with his hands behind his back at ease for a photo with others in his Afghan special forces unit. He wears the rank and insignia of a Dvahomi baridman, or second lieutenant. Credit: Courtesy of Sami-ullah Safi.

But thousands like Wasi, 26, who had helped U.S. forces — but were not paid by the U.S. government — were left behind with few options to escape. With a Taliban target on their backs, many went into hiding as reports of revenge killings grew.

When it was clear Wasi could not get a visa, he went into hiding with his parents and eight other siblings before setting out on a harrowing journey halfway around the world that led to a jail cell more than 12,000 miles from his home.

“It was unfair, unjust, for the U.S. military to leave all the people who put their lives on the line working for the military and in the end leaving them to be slaughtered by the Taliban and closing their eyes on them,” Sami said. “Pretending nothing happened. People have done so much.”

Sami-ullah Safi a group photo from his brother’s Indian Military Academy class in his home in Houston on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022.

In his Houston home, Sami-ullah Safi shows a group photo from his brother’s Indian Military Academy class. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

The story of these Afghan brothers takes place at the intersection of two American failures: the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the nation’s immigration system.

On Aug. 30, 2021, the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan almost 20 years after it invaded the country as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. In that time, the U.S. overthrew the Taliban, established a new government and removed terrorist bases — and U.S. special forces killed Osama Bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader and Sept. 11 mastermind.

The war claimed the lives of more than 3,000 U.S. military personnel and roughly 70,000 civilians. And the Taliban reemerged swiftly as the U.S. handed over the reins of government and security to the Afghans.

As the threat of a Taliban takeover grew, Wasi said his commanding officer at Camp Mazar-al-Sharif told their unit they had a choice: Stay in Afghanistan and prepare to fight with local militia groups against the Taliban or flee on the last military flight to the U.S.

When he couldn’t get on that final flight, Wasi fled the country. Over the next year, he would cross two continents by plane, bus, car and taxi and walk countless miles, including a seven-day trek through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap with a group of other migrants to reach the U.S.-Mexico border two months ago. Then he crossed the Rio Grande and was quickly charged with a federal crime for illegally entering the country.

“Hearing stories like this is the exact reason we want laws changed for the better,” said Steve Patterson, the chief operating officer of the Special Operations Association of America. Patterson said the organization has advocated for people like Wasi to members of Congress, to little effect.

“We view members of Afghan special forces as part of our community,” Patterson said. “We’ve been looking at finding paths to citizenship for them, looking at the federal level, but there’s not as much energy on [Capitol Hill] to get these things passed that we’d like to see.”

Escaping the Taliban

On that August day in Kabul, Wasi wasn’t able to come close to the U.S. military plane — which prioritized U.S. military and civilians — because Hamid Karzai International Airport was packed with thousands trying desperately to catch the flight.

He went to the airport for days trying to get in — showing his military documents to the guards — but was turned away because he didn’t have the proper pass.

Wasi said he was 50 meters away when a suicide bomber associated with ISIS-K — an Islamic State affiliate — detonated at one of the gates on Aug. 26, killing 13 U.S. service members and 60 Afghans.

Even after that, he kept going back. But he was turned away and watched from outside the airport as the final military U.S. flight took off.

The Taliban released a statement that it would show no mercy to any remaining U.S. troops or those who had worked closely with them.

This included the Afghan special forces like Wasi.

Wasi kept a low profile, living in hiding in Afghanistan for nearly a year, first with his family and then alone. He tried to get a visa to enter the U.S., but the U.S. embassy in Kabul had shut down and he would have to apply in person at the embassy in Qatar — which was impossible because he didn’t have the necessary visas to cross Iran or Pakistan to reach Qatar.

Wasi had joined a text chat with his friends, also former Afghan special operations troops. One by one, members of the group were being captured, interrogated and killed. Their families were also at risk.

Listen to a voice message Wasi received informing him that one of his friends in the Afghan special forces had been killed. Credit: Courtesy of Sami-ullah Safi.

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Wasi called Sami in Houston constantly. He told his brother he was becoming “mentally weak,” fearing the worst as the Taliban closed in. “Everyone in the family and [our] relatives knows I was in the special forces,” he said in one voice message to Sami. “I don’t know what to do, brother.”

Sami, who had received U.S. citizenship in July 2021 after six years of living in Texas, knew he needed to help his brother reach the U.S. He paid more than $1,000 to get Wasi a visa to enter neighboring Pakistan.

The brothers heard that Brazil was offering humanitarian aid visas, so Wasi sent his documentation in advance then crossed the Pakistani border by car, avoiding capture by the Taliban, who guarded the country’s main roads. For several weeks, Wasi stayed in a hotel in Islamabad, leaving only to go to his embassy appointment and pick up the visa. Then he had to figure out how to get to Brazil.

Wasi had heard rumors of Taliban patrolling the airports in Pakistan, looking for people fleeing Afghanistan. He also heard about some Pakistani officials refusing to allow ticketed travelers to board their planes unless they paid a bribe. He heard through his special forces network that it had happened to one of his comrades.

Wasi had a friend who worked at the Kabul airport who said he would help him get out of the country.

So with his Brazilian visa in hand, Wasi made the trip back to Kabul, using a fabricated prescription to trick his way past Taliban checkpoints, telling them he had to cross into Pakistan to get medication for his health problems.

During their frantic withdrawal, the U.S. forces had left behind its handheld biometric system, which the Taliban captured and used to check identities: All the guards needed was a fingerprint, a retina scan or even his real name to discover his entire background.

Wasi said he prayed at each checkpoint, fearful that his past as a special operations commando would be discovered. But the guards bought his prescription drug story and never used the biometric system to check him.

At the Kabul airport, a Taliban guard stopped Wasi, searched his documents and questioned why he was going to Brazil.

The guard had a handheld biometric device and asked to scan Wasi’s fingerprints.

Wasi said he started arguing loudly with the guard. He said he was a student traveling to Brazil and demanded to know why he was being harassed. Wasi’s theatrics worked. The guard let him pass.

Surviving the Darién Gap

In late July, after nearly a year of hiding in Afghanistan, Wasi flew from Kabul to São Paulo, Brazil.

Brazil was not a safe haven. Wasi said he was beaten and extorted by locals when he tried to buy anything — vendors charged him as much as $6 for a bottle of water. After three weeks, he decided to join a large caravan of migrants making the journey from South America to the U.S. border by bus and by foot.

A group of migrants traversing through the Darien Gap with Abdul Wasi Safi rest on rocks while drying their feet.

A group of migrants traversing through the Darién Gap with Abdul Wasi Safi rests on rocks while drying their feet. Credit: Courtesy of Sami-ullah Safi.

They crossed through Colombia and into the infamous Darién Gap, a 60-mile stretch of roadless jungle where vulnerable migrants are often preyed upon by gangs, cartels and paramilitary forces in the area. Many die along the way from snake bites, exposure to the elements or drowning.

Wasi said 16 of the group of more than 300 did not make it out of the jungle alive.

He said Panamanian police came to the migrant’s camp during the journey, stripped him naked in front of everyone, threw insect-repellent powder from his pack onto his open wounds and repeatedly called him a terrorist.

“They treated me very bad,” Wasi said. “They took my food and said it was a bomb, calling me Taliban. I said I was not Taliban, and still they treated me like this.”

Despite the obstacles during the journey, Wasi said he kept his faith that he would be treated better when he reached the U.S. because he had sacrificed so much for the country that had let his brother become a citizen.

After crossing through Central America and into Mexico, Wasi said he paid a smuggler who drove him and roughly 30 other migrants in a truck from Mexico City to the U.S. border. They left near midnight. Wasi sat covered in a plastic sheet the smuggler put over them for the long night ride.

When the truck stopped, Wasi said the smuggler opened the back, then shook them down for clothes, valuables and money. The truck left. After a stranger approached and pointed them toward the border, Wasi and the other migrants began walking in the dark.

Arrested at the border

They crossed the shallow Rio Grande slowly on Sept. 30, trying to keep their remaining belongings out of the water. After Wasi crossed, he said he went back to help young children and women who were struggling in the deeper parts of the river.

When Wasi spotted U.S. Border Patrol agents, he said he approached them and asked for asylum. According to a Department of Homeland Security report, an agent apprehended Wasi at Rosetta Farm Orchard near Eagle Pass after spotting footprints leading away from the river.

[Here’s what you need to know about Title 42, the pandemic-era policy that quickly sends migrants to Mexico]

Many migrants who surrender or get caught crossing the border are sent to Mexico under Title 42 — a public health order the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued in March 2020 that immigration officials use to quickly expel migrants without charging them with illegal entry or allowing them to request asylum. The Trump administration said it was needed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but doctors and scientists have said immigrants were not significantly contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

But Mexico has to agree to take them. Currently, the only countries whose citizens Mexico has agreed to accept under Title 42 are Venezuela, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Afghanistan isn’t on the list.

If a person can’t be expelled under Title 42, prosecutors can charge them for illegal entry and immigration officials can deport them. During this process, the person can usually request asylum.

Two days later, after an interrogation by federal agents, Wasi was sent to the Val Verde Correctional Facility and charged with a federal misdemeanor for failing to present himself at a port of entry with paperwork proving he was allowed to be in the U.S.

In October, he was denied bond, to the shock of his brother, who had offered to shelter Wasi while his case was pending. The following month, he was transferred to an immigration detention center in Eden, just over 40 miles east of San Angelo.

“I think my brother is the first in my whole tribe to be in chains, ever,” Sami said after attending his brother’s detention hearing. “It was very difficult to see him like that. He’s not a criminal. Why are they treating him like he has done something wrong?”

Denise Gilman, the director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, said it’s likely that after his criminal charges are sorted out, Wasi will be able to receive an asylum hearing. But it’s possible that he could also be deported back to Afghanistan or kept in immigration detention indefinitely.

If he doesn’t plead guilty, his trial date is set for Dec. 20 in Del Rio.

Sami-ullah Safi sorts through dozens of certificates and photos to pick up his brother’s ID card in his home in Houston on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022.

In his home in Houston, Sami-ullah Safi sorts through dozens of certificates and photos to pick up his brother’s ID card. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

Sami, who used to accompany U.S. Special Forces units on night raid missions in provinces throughout Afghanistan, said the stress caused by his brother’s detention has been more difficult than anything he endured during the war in his home country.

“I understand the problem, what’s going on, what’s happening, but I’m frustrated and struggling and going through all this because of what’s happening,” Sami said.

He has helped his brother find immigration attorneys and reached out to Texas members of Congress for help with his brother’s case. Among those was U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Houston Republican and former Navy SEAL. Crenshaw’s office offered to contact U.S. Customs and Border Protection on his behalf but did not receive the proper paperwork necessary to submit a case. Later, a representative from Crenshaw’s office told Sami via text message that they were unable to help Wasi after he was arrested because once referred to the courts, congressional offices cannot intervene. However, Crenshaw’s office continues to monitor the situation and is in regular contact with U.S. Marshals Service, which is the enforcement arm of the federal courts.

Sami said he is putting his faith in his adopted country to consider his brother’s service in Afghanistan.

“I’m hoping that my service to the military, my brother’s service to the United States military, is being looked at and basically credit him for his service putting his life in danger for working for the United States military,” Sami said.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with more information about the role U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw’s office has had in Wasi’s case.