Del Río: A federal prosecutor who applies the law properly or who discriminates?

A journalistic investigation points to probable irregularities affecting migrants from Islamic countries

When Abdul Wasi Safi finally reached the United States border a year ago, he thought his drama would end. After all, in his native Afghanistan he had been a special operations officer who had fought to defend the pro-American government. But when the political situation changed, he was persecuted by the Taliban. That is why the United States for him was something more than the traditional ‘American Dream’: it was survival. But when he arrived at the border he did not receive the reception he expected. Instead of opening the doors to him, the US immigration authorities arrested Safi.

Thanks to pressure from prominent politicians, Abdul Safi was finally released. But that is not the case for many other migrants who end up detained and which, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation, includes a disproportionate number of people from Islamic countries.

Safi, like many others, was arrested for failing to enter the country through an established entry point and for failing to report his entry to customs authorities. A violation of the penal code, U.S. 1459, which traditionally did not result in a judicial charge, but is now used by authorities against a small number of migrants, among the hundreds of thousands who are apprehended and deported. And that small number includes a disproportionate percentage of migrants from Islamic countries.

This is particularly happening in Texas. More specifically in Del Río, a city of about 35,000 inhabitants that is located on the southwest border of the state and is separated from Ciudad Acuña, on the Mexican side, by the Río Grande. A sector that, as can be imagined, has a lot of migratory activity.

According to the Los Angeles Times, between October 2021 and March 2023, the federal prosecutor with jurisdiction in Del Rio filed charges against 200 migrants for violating USC 1459.

This is a law that requires anyone who crosses the border to do so through an immigration post and report to the corresponding customs authority.

The law, which provides for a sentence of up to a year in jail, was actually enacted decades ago to combat drug trafficking, but is rarely used. However, in Del Rio it appears that the federal prosecutor has his own agenda. It is not drug traffickers who are arrested and charged, but migrants. And migrants who are mostly from Islamic countries.

According to statistics from immigration authorities, migrants from Islamic countries represent less than 5% of those who cross the border, but surprisingly they are no less than 60% of all those who have been charged.

Why this cruelty?

There is no clear explanation and government officials do not want to comment. But as it has been suggested, the arrest of Islamic people would be a way to control this group of people who come from countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Iran, countries that worry US national security agencies.

The majority of migrants who are charged do not have resources and, consequently, cannot hire a lawyer. Many also do not speak English so it is almost impossible for them to put together a legal defense and, thus, they choose to plead guilty.

Many have been sentenced to several months of imprisonment, and there are cases of some who have been detained for more than a year.

Prison, as it has been suggested, is an ideal environment for counterintelligence agencies, such as the FBI, to ‘work’ those who might be willing to cooperate and therefore obtain intelligence.

Although the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security insist that there is nothing wrong, as soon as the Los Angeles Times investigation became known, the filing of charges in Del Rio was suspended.

Was it chance or pressure from above because it was recognized that they were acting irregularly? After all, according to regulations of federal agencies, all migrants must be treated equally.

But the suspension of charges based on violations of USC 1459 does not mean that migrants from Islamic countries do not continue to be detained. The only thing that changed is the type of charges that the prosecutor promotes. Now it is no longer that of not entering through an immigration post, but rather it is a simple charge of unauthorized entry, related to Law 1325, which does not carry serious penalties.

In any case, the problem clearly continues, as illustrated by a group of 50 migrants who since April have faced charges. Around half, are from Islamic countries. A discriminatory selection that generates ethical and legal questions about the criteria that immigration authorities and the federal prosecutor in Del Rio are using. The question is whether the law is being applied according to statutes or if we are witnessing another example of discrimination.

This article was supported in whole, or in part, by funds provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library and the Latino Media Collaborative.


  • Martín Ocampo

    Escritor y periodista de Paysandú, Uruguay, quien actualmente reside en Nueva York, EE.UU., en donde ha trabajado en diversos medios. Su corazón es charrúa y su pluma es latina.

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