The Syrian teenager who turned himself into police on St. Thomas after making an illegal entry into the Virgin Islands was granted the asylum he sought by a federal court.
U.S. Magistrate Ruth Miller signed the order allowing 19-year-old George Soufan to stay in the United States on Friday after Assistant U.S. Attorney Delia Smith filed a motion to dismiss.
Soufan was arrested on March 18, 2019, after he walked into Zone A Command in Charlotte Amalie and told police officers that he came to the territory to escape forced inscription into the Syrian Army. He was arrested and charged with improper entry by an alien.
Smith filed the motion to dismiss on March 19, almost a year to the date when Soufan first appeared. The request came after a Los Angeles immigration judge accepted the teenager’s reason for fleeing his homeland and seeking refuge in the U.S. Since a civil war broke out in 2011, more than 400,000 have been killed in Syria’s ongoing conflict.
According to court documents, Soufan said he was a member of a Christian minority group in his country.
“Soufan told CBP officers that he was born and lived in the Christian village of Ina Anaz, Homs, Syria, near the Lebanon border. Soufan further stated that his claim of asylum was based on a credible threat from the Syrian Army’s practice of forcing all males from his village to join when they turn 18, and then placed them on the front lines to fight in the war,” said the U.S. Attorney for the Virgin Islands, Gretchen Shappert in the filing submitted to Miller.
The youth told authorities that he and his father left Syria in 2017 and traveled to Brazil. From Brazil they went to St. Martin, where the elder Soufan had a brother. From there, on March 16, 2019, father and son traveled by boat to St. John, and from St. John to Zone A Command on St. Thomas.
By the time the illegal entry case made it before the magistrate in District Court, and Miller scheduled a preliminary hearing, Immigration and Customs Enforcement stepped in and took the defendant to Miami for processing. The prosecutor insisted that since Soufan had already been advised of his rights on St. Thomas, he should be returned for prosecution.
The court granted a writ of habeas corpus after the defendant was indicted in April 2019. A trial date was set for May 27, 2020. Pre-trial proceedings were underway when Immigration Judge Jankhann Demi blocked Soufan’s removal on March 5.
St. Thomas authorities were notified on March 11 through Immigration of the court action. Now, Miller says, Soufan is free to travel to California to join relatives and pursue status as a legal U.S. immigrant.
“In light of the Immigration Court’s ruling, the United States seeks to dismiss the indictment here, in the interest of justice,” Smith said.