Examining Illegal immigration from the Muslim World

*Winner of the 2008 National Press Club Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence

*Winner of the 2008 Inter-American Press Association’s award for in-depth reporting

*Winner of the 2008 Texas Institute of Letters Stanley Walker Award for Best Work of Newspaper Journalism

*First Place Winner of the 2008 Houston Press Club For Investigative Reporting


The Grand Mosque in Damascus, Syria near where human smugglers

troll for clients who want to go to America. Photo by Todd Bensman



Since 9-11, homeland security agencies have caught thousands of “special interest aliens” trying to cross U.S. borders illegally. Most of the travelers, whom federal agents label “SIA” for hailing from Islamic countries, are economic or political refugees seeking better lives. But the continuing traffic over American borders is an unassailable fact that until now has gone largely unexplored in the divisive debate over how to balance immigration reform with national security in an age of terrorism. The traffic begs a question: If an Iraqi war refugee can hire smugglers and travel from Syria to Texas for $4,000, couldn’t an equally determined terrorist?

To document the hidden world of special interest immigrants, San Antonio Express-News Staff Writer Todd Bensman retraced the steps of Iraqi war refugee Aamr Bahnan Boles, who swam the Rio Grande and stepped into Texas on April 29, 2006 . Bensman traveled to Damascus, Syria; Amman, Jordan; throughout Guatemala; the southern border state of Chiapas, Mexico; Brownsville and elsewhere along he Texas border; and Michigan. Bensman documented routes used by smugglers to move immigrants like Boles from Islamic countries, including a popular one from Syria to Texas that was used by Boles. The Express-News hired Arabic language interpreters in Syria, Jordan and Texas, where Boles first was interviewed extensively. Bensman obtained materials from overseas smuggling investigations and hundreds of daily intelligence summaries reflecting Texas border crossings by special interest immigrants. He interviewed U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials in both countries, and examined U.S. court records from a dozen unreported federal smuggling prosecutions involving Middle Eastern suspects. Some dialogue and scenes in this series were reconstructed based on interviews with Boles and, when possible, others who were present.



Clandestine travel plans hatched on the far side of the globe bring many immigrants illegally to America from Islamic Countries, a pipeline that grows daily with Iraq war refugees. Aamr Bahnan Boles (pictured below) met his smuggler in a backwater refugee slum of Damascus.

Aamr Bahnan Boles on his first day of freedom in America, the morning after his release from federal prison in Brownsville, TX., January 2007. This photo was taken moments before he boarded a bus from Brownsville to an uncle’s house in Detroit. Photo by Todd Bensman

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Sen. John Cornyn senate floor speech on series

Plus: Have terrorists crossed? Many assume not. They would be wrong.

Afghanis posed as Mexicans, and African Muslims find way to Mexico




Guatemala, where U.S. counterterrorism clashes with smuggling is one of the world’s busiest bridges carrying special interest immigrants to America. American counterterrorism agencies seem powerless to stop the flow.

A heavy human traffic moves back and forth across the Rio Suchiati, the border between

Guatemala and Mexico, aboard inner tube boats. Photo by Todd Bensman

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Wedged between a skittish United States and the bridges to America traversed by migrants from Islamic countries, Mexico seeks to stop illicit northbound traffic, partnering with U.S. intelligence agencies in secret programs.                                                  


Guatemala buses like this one carry illegal U.S.-bound immigrants to the Mexican border. Local police

and immigration officers almost always board and demand bribes from such passengers

to continue on. Photo by Todd Bensman

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PART IV : ‘MADE IT TO AMERICA’                  

When Iraqi war refugee Boles crossed the Rio Grande, authorities assumed the worst about him. In the current climate of uncertainty and fear about such immigrants, they had little choice. For Boles, it was literally a test of faith.

The Rio Grande near the point where Aamr Boles crossed on April 2006. Photo by Todd Bensman

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Iraqis fleeing the war are increasingly making their way toward American borders as illegal immigrants. But many of them are far from insurgents bent on doing harm to America. They are from a Christian minority, persecuted and tormented by the same Islamic extremists the U.S. fears just as much. Among them are single young men of fighting age like Boles. But whole families are making their way over too.

In Damascus, Syria, Iraqi Christian refugees taken sanctuary

from Islamic extremists. This Iraqi Christian proudly shows a

tattoo proudly marking his religion. Photo by Todd Bensman

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-- More than 5,700 illegal “special interest aliens” from 43 Islamic countries, including State Sponsors of Terror, have been caught while traveling over the Canadian and Mexican borders along well-established underground smuggling routes between 9-11, 2001 and June 2007, a traffic that continues daily.

-- The general flow of routes across the world moves toward South America and Central America first because it puts illegal immigrants within easy striking distance of the Mexican border. Corrupt customs and government officials in those nations, as well as Arab settler populations, help keep this traffic moving northward, providing safe haven, jobs and smuggling connections.

-- Based on widely accepted rule of thumb estimations, between 20,000 and 60,000 have gotten through without getting caught since 9/11. Most are probably economic or politically persecuted migrants. But the primary security threat are those who evade terror watch list screening of any sort, and they are many.

-- These illegal immigrants, though small in total numbers, are considered high risk because they hail from countries where American troops are actively battling Islamic insurgents, from nations where radical Islamic organizations have bombed U.S. interests, or from designated State Sponsors of Terrorism. Among the nations whose citizens are crossing U.S. borders are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian Arab territories.

-- Unguarded U.S. borders are most certainly in terrorist play books as a means of entering the country. Since the late 1990s, when Al Qaeda first began hitting American interests abroad, at least a dozen publicly known reputed terrorists have sneaked over U.S. borders, including operatives from Hezbollah, Hamas, the Tamil Tigers and one Al Qaeda terrorist once No. 27 on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorist list.

-- Latin American consulates based in the Middle East are selling tourist visas outright for bribes or simply issuing them to local travelers without regard to screening in line with U.S. security interests. Guatemala is a key stepping stone country through which large numbers of special interest immigrants travel northward and which issues visas regularly from its consulates in places like Jordan and Egypt.

-- Since 9/11, Mexico has fielded a surprisingly robust effort to interdict special interest immigrants, partaking in a secret program to allow American intelligence agents inside its prisons to interview captured Middle Easterners. But severe shortages of manpower and interpreters cause the release of many in Mexico -- without thorough threat assessments -- to continue toward the U.S. border.

-- On the U.S. side of the border, the FBI is supposed to interrogate and assess the threat posed by every captured special interest alien. But the severely flawed process is vulnerable to error. Often, the FBI signs off on captured SIAs (allowing them access to the political asylum process) without knowing whether

they are terrorists.



Bensman with Express-News photographer Jerry Lara on the Rio Suchiate border  between Mexico

and Guatemala.