Some Illegal Immigrants Say They Flee Religious Persecution, Others Seek Opportunity

Some Illegal Immigrants Say They Flee Religious Persecution, Others Seek Opportunity

Allhadad Mujtaba, a former communications officer in the Afghan National Army, stands next to a fire on a cold night near Jacumba, Calif., on Dec. 5, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Brad JonesJohn Fredricks

Brad Jones & John Fredricks

1/17/2024

Updated: 1/23/2024

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Many of the illegal immigrants who recently entered the United States through gaps in the border wall at three makeshift camps in southeastern San Diego County claim they’ve come to America to flee religious persecution, while others say they’re coming for jobs, education, and business opportunities.
More than a dozen illegal immigrants interviewed at the locations near the border wall known as Willow, Moon, and 177 camps between Dec. 5 and Jan. 10 told The Epoch Times they paid anywhere from $2,000 to $18,000 to get to the United States from Tijuana but wouldn’t say much about their Mexican “guides.”
About 50 of the 71 illegal immigrants apprehended at the border wall near 177 camp on Jan. 10 were young men from several countries, including Peru, India, Colombia, and China. They were held for less than an hour at the camp and then transported in vans to a border patrol station in Boulevard, California, a small town a few miles away. Women and children were transported to shelters first.
Border Patrol agents process border crossings in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Border Patrol agents process border crossings in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

A Peruvian illegal immigrant looks at the United States border wall in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

A Peruvian illegal immigrant looks at the United States border wall in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Peru

Among the illegal immigrants was Franco Gonzales, 23, from Peru, who said he flew from Lima to Mexico City to Tijuana, where he paid $2,000 to get to the gap in the border wall.
While waiting at the camp, Mr. Gonzales said he planned to fly from San Diego to New York to work with his father, who he said runs a maintenance business.
Peru is too unstable with too much insecurity to run a business, Mr. Gonzales said.
“If you want to start a business, you have to pay the mob,” he said.
Sitting next to a large boulder with three other Peruvian men sheltering themselves from the wind, he asked Epoch Times reporters, “Why are they letting people in?”
Mr. Gonzales also asked how long he would be held at the camp. In his case, it took about an hour, but according to U.S. Border Patrol sources, it can take a few days when processing centers are at or over capacity, which happened in December and early January.
Another man from Peru said he paid $2,000 just to get from Tijuana to the border wall near the small town of Jacumba, while two Colombian men who flew from Bogota to Mexico to Tijuana said they each paid $4,000.

Turkey

Several illegal immigrants at the camps said they came to the United States to escape religious persecution in predominantly Muslim countries.
A family of five from Gaziantep, Turkey, who said they were Alawites, a large ethno-religious minority group, said they fled the country to escape religious persecution and had plans to move to Pittsburgh.
Illegal immigrants gather after crossing the United States border wall in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Illegal immigrants gather after crossing the United States border wall in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Border Patrol agents monitor border crossings in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Border Patrol agents monitor border crossings in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

An 18-year-old woman, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said majority Islamic groups in Gaziantep painted the doors of Alawites with red paint to signify fire and let people know they were different.
The intimidation was frightening, especially for her mother and little brother, she said.
“She was always afraid something was going to happen to us,” she said. “They were bullying us and attacking us, and we couldn’t live anywhere, so then we decided to come in here. We were told we will have a better life in here.”
The family’s apartment, she said, was destroyed in a catastrophic earthquake that killed nearly 3,900 in Gaziantep last year.
“Even in the earthquake in Gaziantep they didn’t help us,” she said.
It took about four days for the family to fly from Turkey to Cancun, Mexico, and then to Tijuana, where they paid about $10,000 per person to be transported to the gap in the border wall.
In its 2023 annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom advised the U.S. Department of State to place Turkey on its Special Watch List. The Turkish government has used criminal blasphemy charges against government critics and individuals believed to have mocked Islam, according to a report released by the commission in December 2022. Uzbekistan is also on the watch list, along with 10 other countries. The commission also lists Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China among 17 nations on its Countries of Particular Concern list.

Pakistan

Sheraz Mesih, a 25-year-old Christian man from Islamabad who crossed the border, said he fled Pakistan to escape religious persecution in 2020.
Sheraz Mesih, a persecuted Christian from the nation of Pakistan, awaits to be processed by border patrol agents after crossing the United States border on Jan. 16, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Sheraz Mesih, a persecuted Christian from the nation of Pakistan, awaits to be processed by border patrol agents after crossing the United States border on Jan. 16, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Nongovernment organizations transport food to illegal immigrants in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Nongovernment organizations transport food to illegal immigrants in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

His journey has taken years because he stopped in Brazil to work and save money before making his way north, “country by country,” he said.
“Pakistan is Muslim country. That’s why I come here,” he said. “They say to the world they are peaceful, but where is the peace?”
Soon, he said, Pakistan—which had been about 5 percent Christian—will be less than 2 percent because girls are forced to convert to Islam, he said.
“They marry them to convert them. They force them,” he said. “If you say no, they kill you.”
The killings are often done in public and nobody dares to help them, he said.
“They shoot you. They give you poison. They have many ways. The women don’t tell. They don’t say nothing. They’re not happy because it’s an Islamic country,” he said. “I don’t hate them. We are all human ... but other people should know what they are doing in their countries to Christian people.”
Most of the world isn’t aware Christians are being persecuted in Pakistan, he said.
“They don’t see the reality,” but Christians who live there do, he said.
Every day, Christians are living in danger with no quality of life, he said.
“They force us to convert to their religion. They rape our women. They treat us bad,” he said.
The Pakistani government also has a “very bad image” and scrubs content online.
“With a Pakistani passport you can’t travel to other countries without a visa,” he said.
“Chinese, Indian Afghani—their passport is strong. They can get visas for El Salvador, Costa Rica, and other countries. Then they come here country by country.”
He left Brazil three months ago and arrived in the United States on Dec. 4, 2023, he said.
The four-day journey on foot through the Darién Gap was treacherous, and there were scattered bodies of those who didn’t make it, he said.
The region is a hot, humid region with tropical rainforests, mangrove swamps, and low mountain ranges. The 66-mile “gap” interrupts the Pan-American Highway.
“It was hell on the earth,” he said. “A lot of people don’t get past the jungle. They die.”
Many migrants were robbed of their money and left without food or water, he said.
“Some lost their lives there. The world should see what is happening in Central America,” he said. “They don’t see, but they should investigate it more because they need to stop this.”
Only the lucky ones make it through the jungle, he said, stressing that he doesn’t wish the journey on anyone.
“It’s not easy. It’s not for everybody,” he said. “Nobody deserves this.”
Mr. Mesih said his younger brother, who works as a waiter, was the first to make it to America and is now trying to bring the rest of the family.
“We helped him get here and now he’s helping me ... and then after that, we will try to help our family to bring them here,” he said.
The exhausted-looking man, who had spent the night in Willow camp, said he was anxious to leave and meet his brother.
“I’m here alone. I don’t have friends. Nobody here to talk [to]. I’m on my own,” he said. “I’m talking with the border patrol officers, but they say you have to wait.”
Illegal immigrants gather after crossing the United States border wall in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Illegal immigrants gather after crossing the United States border wall in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Illegal immigrants gather after crossing the United States border wall in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Illegal immigrants gather after crossing the United States border wall in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

China

A friendly Chinese couple, Chin and Hadong, at Willow camp, said they left China because it’s a “scary” place to live.
Several other illegal immigrants who said they were from China indicated they couldn’t speak English.

Mauritania

One man at Willow camp, who was traveling with a group of nine countrymen from Mauritania, a country in northwest Africa, said the group flew to Nicaragua and then made their way north. He said the group struggled and had to walk a long way.
The man, who didn’t want to be named, said he is planning to go to the Bronx in New York, “a rough place for rough people,” he said.
After the “dangerous” two-week journey, and a few cold nights at the camp, he said he was ready to leave for New York.
“Worst two nights in my life—no blankets,” he said. “We suffered a lot. When we came here, we thought it was over, but we’re still suffering.”
A man from Mauritania who didn't want to be named, near Jacumba, Calif., on Dec. 5, 2023. (Brad Jones/The Epoch Times)

A man from Mauritania who didn't want to be named, near Jacumba, Calif., on Dec. 5, 2023. (Brad Jones/The Epoch Times)

Uzbekistan

At Moon camp, a few miles east of Jacumba, on Dec. 5, 2023, Chakhzod Islomnojonov, 18, said it took him two weeks to get to the United States from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, by air to Tijuana, with stops in Istanbul, Casablanca, France, and Mexico City.
Mr. Islomnojonov said he was also headed to New York, to stay with his uncle, a policeman in Brooklyn, where he plans to attend college.
“I want to be [a] lawyer,” he said with a blended Uzbek and British accent. “I learned British English, not American.”

Afghanistan

Allhadad Mujtaba, 33, told The Epoch Times he arrived in America on Dec. 5, 2023, after a three-month journey from Afghanistan with his 27-year-old wife and their 1-year-old son.
Mr. Mujtaba said he was a communications officer for the Afghan army and that his life and the lives of his family were at risk from the Taliban. He said the trek out of the country with his family to Pakistan was terrifying.
Allhadad Mutjaba, a former communications officer for the Afghan army in Afghanistan, at the Moon camp east of Jacumba, Calif., with his wife and young son after crossing the U.S.–Mexico border on Dec. 5, 2023. (Brad Jones/The Epoch Times)

Allhadad Mutjaba, a former communications officer for the Afghan army in Afghanistan, at the Moon camp east of Jacumba, Calif., with his wife and young son after crossing the U.S.–Mexico border on Dec. 5, 2023. (Brad Jones/The Epoch Times)

“Afghanistan is Taliban—Al Qaeda,” he said. “My people are Hazaras and Shia. Taliban is very bad.”
With very little money in his pocket, Mr. Mutjaba said he wasn’t sure what to do next but that he was confident he would find help in the United States because of his service with the Afghan army, an American ally.
Once in Pakistan, the family flew from Islamabad to Brazil and spent four days crossing the Darién Gap on foot.
“I’m pregnant,” his wife said. “It was so difficult for me.”
The couple then made their way to Ecuador and Honduras before reaching Mexico.
Although they haven’t decided where they want to live, they said they were grateful to be anywhere in America.
Mr. Mujtaba said that they paid $4,000 each for their passage to the United States but were not charged for their baby.

Brazil

A large group of more than a dozen Brazilians were in high spirits at Moon camp, excited to be in California. One man traveling with his family said he was headed to Boston to live, while another said he was going to meet his sister in another part of Massachusetts.
That night in the dust-blown camps, about 100 illegal immigrants gathered twigs and brush for campfires to stay warm and huddled outside makeshift shelters made of tarps and tents.
Just outside the camp, piles of trash and clothing were strewn in the brush where illegal immigrants discard most of their belongings before they board buses bound for Border Patrol stations and processing centers. Some of the items included foreign currency, medications, documents, and IDs. Many of the products were labeled in Mandarin.
Discarded paperwork sits near the United States border wall in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Discarded paperwork sits near the United States border wall in Jacumba, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

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Brad Jones

Brad Jones

Author

Brad Jones is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California.

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John Fredricks

John Fredricks

Author

John Fredricks is a California-based journalist for The Epoch Times. His reportage and photojournalism features have been published in a variety of award-winning publications around the world.

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