HOUSTON — Abdul Wasi Safi stirred with anxiety the first night he tried to sleep at his brother’s home.
Less than 24 hours after he was released from an immigration detention center, the Afghanistan soldier who traversed the world to escape the Taliban worried every time he heard sirens that American authorities were about to re-arrest him.
His fear would subside, as the reality that the four months he spent incarcerated after attempting to claim asylum at the Texas border were behind him. It sunk in. He really was reunited with his brother, Sami-ullah Safi, a naturalized American citizen.
“Really, they let me out!” Wasi said Friday.
The brothers’ reunification was made public Friday at a news conference hosted by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat who had pressured President Joe Biden’s administration and other federal agencies to intervene on Wasi’s behalf.
“America made a promise, and America kept her promise,” Jackson Lee said.
Both Safi brothers expressed gratitude to Jackson Lee, who involved herself integrally to work with government officials to expedite Wasi’s dismissal process.
Wasi’s journey to the U.S. began the day American forces pulled out of Afghanistan. As a special forces officer who helped the U.S. military, Wasi was an easy target for the Taliban, which began a revenge campaign. For months, Wasi hid with his family. Eventually, he left for the U.S. to reunite with his brother in Houston.
He crossed three continents, including a seven-day trek through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap with a group of other migrants to reach the U.S.-Mexico border in September. After being dumped near Del Rio by a smuggler, Wasi said he attempted to present himself to a border agent and ask for asylum. Instead, he was arrested.
Wasi’s monthslong detention at the border caught national attention after The Texas Tribune first published his story. Various veterans and refugee advocates pressed federal officials to release Wasi. National news organizations, including Fox News, reported on Wasi’s case.
Additional members of Congress joined in penning their own letters to the White House including Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, and Rep. Mike Waltz, a Florida Republican. Both are military veterans.
After multiple starts, stops and shifts in legal teams, Wasi was expected to have his first criminal trial in February. If he had been found guilty, he would have had to serve up to one year in prison before beginning his asylum claim. Wasi and his brother insisted Wasi would not start his life in the U.S. with a criminal record.
And earlier this week, the federal government dropped their case against Wasi, setting the stage for his release.
“A wrong has been made right,” Sami said. “We have held the faith that America does not abandon its allies.” Both brothers helped U.S. forces in the country’s longest war, but Sami was a contracted translator while Wasi was an officer in the Afghan special forces.
Jackson Lee’s office pressured multiple federal government agencies, including the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense, about Wasi’s situation.
“I thought it was going to be easy to work out,” Jackson Lee said. Instead, her office went to agency after agency to help figure out how to get Wasi released.
“This is not about writing letters,” she said. “This is about the elbow grease that got our government to be a government of promise.”
Jackson Lee said she would work to streamline the process for soldiers like Wasi to apply for asylum so another case like this one doesn’t happen again.
At one point on Friday, Wasi referred to Jackson Lee as his new American mom.
Wasi’s journey to asylum can start in earnest now. It’s a legal process that may take years, but in the meantime he wants a green card so he can work, and to take English classes.
“I’m hopeful about the next steps in this process,” Wasi said. “I will live the American dream.”
“When I was in Val Verde and they sent me to Eden Detention Center, all the people [were] wearing [the] same uniform,” Wasi said. “All the time I was thinking about outside … but when I came out here we went to a shopping mall, I feel beautiful, like normal.”
Wasi said he started to feel hope again about coming to the United States when the congresswoman told him to continue his fight and not plead guilty.
“This is the best of America and it takes the right spirit to make it happen,” Jackson Lee said.
Wasi’s case took involvement at some of the highest levels of the U.S. government to see a change. There are more Afghans in detention at the border, including one whom Wasi recognized from his time as a cadet, but the congresswoman said the path forward is largely administrative.
Wasi smiled while speaking at the conference, something he said he rarely did while trekking to finally meet with his brother. When he and Sami saw each other without the prison’s barriers, Wasi said to finally hug him was amazing.
This story was originally published by The Texas Tribune.