Afghan soldier arrested at border while seeking asylum has new lawyers, meets with FBI

Abdul Wasi Safi, who worked as an intelligence officer in the Afghan National Security Forces alongside U.S. troops, hopes to apply for asylum in the U.S. but is awaiting a criminal trial in a Texas detention center. (Courtesy Of Sami-Ullah Safi., Courtesy Of Sami-Ullah Safi.)

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

The new legal team for an Afghan soldier in custody at a Texas detention center hopes fresh cooperation with the U.S. government will lead to his eventual release and asylum.

Abdul Wasi Safi, known as Wasi, worked as an intelligence officer in the Afghan National Security Forces alongside U.S. troops. Fearing for his life after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, Wasi escaped the Taliban, crossing three continents and ultimately making his way to the U.S.-Mexico border. Rather than reuniting with his brother, a naturalized American citizen, Wasi was arrested at the border and has been in custody since Sept. 30.

Wasi was expected to have a hearing this week. However, the new legal team has asked for an extension until mid-February.

“We’re five days into this, and we’re going to work with this process to try to get it back on track and get him on track to asylum in the United States,” said Zachary Fertitta, one of Wasi’s new attorneys. “That process is not a fast process, and we have to engage in it and that’s what we’re doing.”

Meanwhile, Wasi’s physical and mental health appear to be deteriorating.

He sustained multiple injuries traveling across the world to the Texas-Mexico border, including being beaten by an officer as he emerged from the treacherous Darién Gap, a stretch of jungle in South America known to claim migrant lives.

His ears bleed. His gums have almost completely receded. His jaw constantly hurts, he said. Wasi has said he was given one pill for all his ailments: ibuprofen.

“Why they treat me like this?” Wasi asked during a recent interview. Wasi had always hoped his military service would provide him a smooth pathway toward asylum in the U.S.

Fertitta, a Houston-based criminal attorney, joins two other attorneys: criminal law attorney Erica Benites Giese in San Antonio and immigration attorney Jennifer Cervantes in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Wasi’s legal team is navigating a web of criminal and immigration law, with the ultimate goal of having the criminal charges of illegally entering the U.S. dropped and putting Wasi on a path toward being granted asylum.

Both Fertitta and Giese have worked as prosecuting attorneys. Giese notably worked in Del Rio with the U.S. Attorney’s office, the same system through which Wasi was charged with a federal misdemeanor for failing to present with the correct documentation to remain in the U.S.

Cervantes said the goal is to have those charges cleared before he begins his immigration asylum hearing.

“In my perspective, I’m waiting for the criminal side to end this relatively minor thing, so Wasi can start his asylum process,” Cervantes said. “He won’t be able to tell his story of the work he’s done for the U.S. until his credible-fear claim interview and eventually his asylum hearing.”

According to Cervantes, most migrants charged for small misdemeanors like Wasi’s would likely have served no more than three months if given a sentence at all with a guilty plea. Unless the charges against Wasi are dropped before the next plea agreement date, Wasi will have served well past that in an effort to not begin life in a new country with a criminal record.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation interviewed Wasi on Jan. 3 to verify his identity and military service records, according to Wasi's team.

A Houston-area volunteer started a GoFundMe account in the name of Wasi’s brother Sami-ullah Safi to cover likely medical expenses from a team of periodontists, dentists, audiologists and mental health professionals on standby to assess Wasi after his release.