Since Coronavirus fear has prompted global airline travel restrictions on anyone traveling to and from Iran, it bears knowing that airline travel is not the only way Iranians reach the interior of the United States. Every year, Iranians travel to the U.S. southern border and claim asylum. In December 2018, Todd Bensman was reporting on migration through Panama and Costa Rica when he met four such Iranian migrants, including one who spoke English. The migrants spoke about their long journey, travel methods and hopes for U.S. asylum. The question at that time was whether they might they be part of Iranian intelligence services or even Hezbollah operatives. Today, U.S. Border Patrol will have to consider whether they’d been exposed to the Coronavirus.
By Todd Bensman, December 2018
GOLFITO, Costa Rica — The four Iranians told me they first saw me hundreds of miles south, in a Panamanian migration camp 15 miles off the main road, at the end of a dirt track in the Darien jungle. The one who spoke some English told me they had been “frightened” at the sight of me, by the sudden appearance way out there in the jungle of someone who could only have been some sort of American law enforcement or intelligence agent determined to interrogate them and maybe send them home.
In fact, a certain Panamanian government friend told me where that camp was, and sure enough, it was there in the jungle, filled with migrants from places with a lot of Islamist terrorist group activity, like Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Bangladesh — and, of course, Iran, a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism. The Panamanian military police came running when they noticed me among the migrants in that secret camp and didn’t let me stay for long, demanding to know how I had found it and what I was doing there.
I finally met the Iranians face-to-face here in Golfito, where they told me about this. We met in another camp, this one maintained by the Costa Rican government. Under a bi-national agreement, the Panamanians catch “special interest aliens”, as American homeland security officials know them, and after a week or two have them bused straight to the Costa Rica border, where the government processes them, as I wrote yesterday and showed in a video, and facilitates their travel by bus to Nicaragua and eventually the American border.
This policy was described to me as a humanitarian solution designed to suppress a dangerous smuggling industry in both countries and also to help the Americans somewhat filter for terrorists by providing opportunities to collect fingerprints and retinal eye scans. Until me, no American had interviewed the Iranians. Neither had any Panamanian or Costa Rican police or immigration official. So the Americans at the U.S. border will have their work cut out for them.
The English-speaking Iranian told me they were Sunni Muslims from the Kurdish part of Iran — one of the four claimed to be a recent Christian convert. He said they were all headed to the U.S. border and would claim political asylum.
Maybe they’ll achieve their asylum claims. But whatever happens, they’re all in for serious interrogations once they reach the American border; the fright will be on the other shoe this time. At issue for American intelligence personnel who will flock to whatever detention center they’re in, of course, will be determining whether they are Iranian intelligence agents, members of Hezbollah’s notorious Unit 910, or merely victims of a harsh Islamist regime and deserving of American sanctuary.
That’s a legitimate American responsibility with migrants from a place like Iran, and this shouldn’t be a hard concept to grasp because none of the four Iranians had any sort of identification with them, claiming various mishaps. The stories I was told as to why they deserve asylum seemed almost tailor-made to achieve credible fear from American asylum officers who will initially interview them: anti-government protest activity and the Christianity conversion thing, which could draw a death-penalty apostasy charge in Iran. But it’ll take hard-driving interviews above and beyond the asylum process to make sure of who these guys really are because it’s not as though our side can just call up the Iranians and ask for some database checks for involvement in crime, terrorism, or intelligence agency membership.
They Iranians said they got visas to Ecuador, which is a visa-free nation, then flew there from Iran and “from Ecuador to here, we travel illegally, border by border, country by country, until now.”
They claimed no smuggler helped them; they just figured out on their own what to do to this point. Of course, they wouldn’t need a smuggler to move through Panama and Costa Rica these days because both governments work hard and in concert to keep migrants moving north. The Costa Ricans were especially helpful: “They gave us a map” and a list of bus fare costs ($10 to $15) to another Costa Rican migrant camp where they could stay the night and from there pass into Nicaragua. It’s unclear whether the Nicaraguans are cooperating in this helpful facilitation toward the American border, but indications are that they are not participating.
As we bid farewell in the Golfito camp, the Iranians said they had their “permisos” to leave the camp. They left me then to walk into the small town down the road, where they could access Western Union. A “friend” in Ecuador was wiring the money and, in turn, that friend would collect reimbursement from their families in Iran. The money thing is complicated because of international sanctions and so forth, the English-speaking one told me.
The Iranians all were very curious about what would happen to them once the Americans get them in custody. All I felt I could tell them was that they should expect to be questioned.
Iranian citizen Sina Zandi Chareh Bayan spoke some English. Following is a transcript of my audiotaped interview with him.
Q. So tell me, are you Shia?
A. No, Sunni.
Q. Sunni? In Iran? Are you Kurdish?
Q. Tell me, why did you leave?
A. As I told you, I think … I don’t think, I’m sure … I was in danger and if I stayed in Iran maybe go to prison and that’s it, maybe I’m not sure, but prison.
Q. For what?
A. For illicit activity against government, and cruelty and unfairity (sic). But Kurdish people, and Sunni people, of course because the government is Shia and no Kurdish, and Kurdish is a very small province at the west near Iraq. Always, always there is double standard. Another word in English … is something like race. Racist. Yeah.
Q. How did you get here? Did you have to hire a smuggler, or somebody to … a facilitator?
A. No. I took a flight from Iraq to Ecuador because we don’t need visa to travel to Ecuador and from there we travel illegally, country by country, until now.
Q. You didn’t pay someone to help you get into the Darien jungle and everything?
A. No. We made it by ourself. Of course another people that has agent, yeah, you know, smuggler called agent. They had agent. They were two days in jungle and we stayed like eight or nine days in jungle because we haven’t a guide and we just follow the lead. In the jungle of course are thief, armed thieves who robbed us of everything we had. Phone. Watch. Ring. Everything you see. They took everything, and we made it to here.
Q. So now what?
A. I think we are in some process; we can go to Nicaragua. After that, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and United States of course. And we know the United States is very safe for us. We’re not sure but maybe they’ll protect us in the United States. We have to go and see what happens.
Q. So you were a protester in Iran, demonstrator… anti-government …
A. Yeah. My friend [indicating Iranian individual standing next to him] changed his religion from Islam to Christian. There was a danger. And I have some anti-government activities, and I had to run.
Q. How did you go from Ecuador to Colombia?
A. Cross the border illegally.
Q. In a bus or how?
A. No, at the border we talked to one car and we told him we want to go to Colombia, and he said “No problem, sit in my car and I will cross you the border.” And that’s what happened. And we paid like $20 for each one.
Q. And then from Colombia to Panama?
A. From Colombia, we took a bus city by city until Turbo. And from Turbo, we took a boat to Cartagena, and from Cartagena jungle to Panama.
Q. And how many days in the jungle?
A. Eight or nine. Nine. Eight and half.
Q. How did the Panamanian police find you?
A. We went to the camp. We surrendered ourselves to police and there was a camp in a small village. Chaqito, name of I don’t know, city or just camp. We spend three days there. After they send us to another camp where we saw you.
Q. That’s where you saw us?
Q. Penita. Yeah, we were there. Long way.
A. You had a white (car). We were scared.
Q. But why?
A. I don’t know. Because anywhere we feel dangerous. Anywhere we feel not safe. Maybe someone follow us, maybe someone catch us. That’s what happened in all of the journey.
Q. So did they put you on a bus from La Peñita? How did you get here? Just tell me everything because La Peñita is way out in the jungle.
A. Yes. We paid like $20 each one, a hundred people, from Penita to Panama City, and in Panama City we changed bus, 100 percent from one bus to another bus.
Q. Were the Panamanian police with you the whole time?
A. No. But they know. They coordinate the bus, and they know we’re going to border, and border police stop the bus, and we took out the bus. First there was our names and country and number of the persons from each country. The hundred people spend the night at the border. We sleep at the border. At the morning, we walked border and to police in Costa Rica. Costa Rica police …
Q. Put you here?
Q. From here, though, now what? What is your plan?
A. There is a plan, actually. They gave us a map. We take a bus to the capital of …
Q. Who gave you a map?
A. Here. Immigration.
Q. They gave you a map?
A. Yes, they gave us a map, and cost the bus $10 or $15, we should pay to the bus to the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Then there’s another camp, and we should I think cross the border to Nicaragua. The rest of the story we don’t know yet.
Q. Do you have money?
A. Now? No. Now we run out of money, and we should find somebody because we don’t have any ID card. We have someone to give us money there from Western Union.
Q. From where? Who?
A. We have a friend in Ecuador, because in Iran there is no Western Union, maybe you know.
Q. So you have a friend in Ecuador?
A. Yes, he send us the money and our family in Iran give money to his family. It’s very difficult but we have to.
Q. What is the plan for when you reach the United States border? What do you do?
A. I think there is a camp in Mexico and we have to wait until they let us through. We don’t know yet. Actually, we don’t have a plan. We don’t know anyone to tell us what we should do. We have to go and see what happens.
Q. So you don’t know what to do when you go to the border?
A. Maybe … I don’t know, there is a little part from another person that heard ahead of us said we should stay in the camp and say our names to police of the United States, and there is a number they gave us. And the number … to call person and let them through or not.
Q. Did the Panamanians take your fingerprints?
A. Yes. Panama and here.
Q. And eyes?
A. Yes. Eyes prints.
Q. What else?
A. Just that. Eyes print and fingerprints and photos.
Q. Have you seen any Americans? Nobody’s talked to you?
Q. It’s not very often that Iranians come. The thinking is, oh Iran … we have conflict, American and Iran, and so …
A. Actually, there’s nothing about us to be worried and to hide. We will tell the truth. If they accept, good. And if the