Hotel becomes prison for Iraqi Christians seeking U.S. asylum

TIJUANA, Mexico - About 150 men, women and children were being held Thursday by Mexican authorities in a shabby Tijuana hotel that has become an internationally known way station for Iraqi Christians seeking political asylum in the United States.

In nearby San Diego, across the world's busiest border crossing, 45 more Iraqis were being detained by U.S. authorities after they tried to enter the United States without visas Wednesday.

It wasn't immediately known what prompted the crackdown at the hotel. But the dingy Royal Suites clearly has become a key gathering point for Iraqis, many of whom spend their life savings just to reach Mexico.

''I say to you death or asylum, nothing else!'' Talale Hanna shouted as he leaned out a window of the four-story hotel. He said adults inside were on a hunger strike and hadn't eaten in two days.

Other Iraqis stared out a dusty hotel window at American relatives waiting below. They were kept from leaving by Mexican federal police in the lobby and the courtyard, some of them carrying rifles.

Iraqi refugees have been staying at the hotel while waiting for American authorities to process asylum applications, according to relatives. As some made it across into the United States, others came from around the world.

''This place is like the headquarters,'' said Mikha Faris, an American citizen whose sister and brother-in-law are inside the hotel. ''Everything was cool, nobody knew what was going on.''

That changed Wednesday when Mexican authorities, perhaps responding to a theft complaint, surrounded the hotel and took away four Iraqis suspected of smuggling immigrants. Relatives said the crackdown prompted scores of others to head for the U.S. border.

It's no accident that the immigrants have ended up in Tijuana.

The San Diego area, just a half-hour away, has the second-largest community of Iraqi Chaldeans, who are Christian, in the United States. The Detroit area has the largest.

Chaldeans number about 800,000 worldwide, about half of whom are in Iraq. Some 120,000 live in the United States, including an estimated 15,000 in San Diego County.

Relatives of those in the Tijuana hotel said a Chaldean family made it to the border about six months ago and was granted asylum in the United States. News of that spread around the world and Iraqis - who must travel overland because of U.N. sanctions on air travel - soon were coming to Tijuana.

''One called another and one called another and you see what is happening now,'' Faris said.

The number of applications from Iraqi Christians seeking asylum at the San Ysidro, Calif., border crossing has increased from virtually none last year to 172 in the past two months, said Robert Looney, the Immigration and Naturalization Service director of regional asylum.

Immigrants can get asylum if they convince authorities they have a credible fear of persecution in their home country. Many Iraqis manage to do so.

The Suites Royal is run down, with an old sign missing all but one letter of the word ''hotel,'' and whole families share a room, with some forced to sleep on the floor.

But to reach the United States, they will put up with just about anything, said Sam Abbod, an El Cajon, Calif., resident who has six cousins detained at the hotel. He and other Iraqis regularly visited their relatives, helping with expenses and legal advice.

''Let me tell you how desperate my people are,'' he said. ''If you tell them go to Somalia for six months and then you'll have a chance to go to the U.S., they would go tomorrow.''


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