A San Diego-area nonprofit running an "underground railroad" is trying to save "as many people as possible" from turmoil in Iraq by finding them refuge in Southern California, and it has tens of thousands of Christian Iraqis on its waiting list.
Mark Arabo, a first generation Iraqi-American born and raised east of San Diego, founded the Minority Humanitarian Foundation (MHF) in 2014 after he grew tired of waiting for a response from Washington officials to the crisis created by Islamic State militants, he told NBC7 in San Diego.
“My number one goal is to save as many people as possible," Arabo told NBC7. "It's never been about me or whether I am a target or not. I am focused. We have to save people that are getting killed because of who they are."
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The group aims to help Chaldean Catholics and other persecuted religious minorities in Iraq by creating a safe passage for those that would like the leave the country and building a safe haven for those that would like to stay within the country. Arabo said the MHF works with other groups to coordinate the extractions.
In the past ten months, more than 300 Chaldeans have been transported safely from Iraq to El Cajon's Chaldean Cathedral, east of San Diego, though tens of thousands more are on the foundation's waiting list.
Though specific stops along the "railroad" are kept secret to protect the refugees, Arabo's passage to freedom starts in northern Iraq and goes through Turkey, several destinations in Europe, Mexico City, Tijuana, and finally El Cajon.
Arabo says visas are no longer processed in Iraq, making it impossible for Chaldeans to enter the U.S. in any ordinary fashion.
In June 2014 and July 2015, Arabo confirmed to NBC7 he flew to Washington, D.C. to speak with U.S. officials about the refugees that need help.
He visited with White House officials, State Department officials and members of Congress during his time in the Capitol, holding a binder filled with 70,000 applications for U.S. visas that he urged officials to consider. For many Iraqis, a visa is difficult if not impossible to obtain in Iraq, Arabo told NBC7.
Arabo said the underground process meets federal regulations. Once at U.S.-Mexico border, refugees ask for political asylum.
Arabo says in Iraq, Chaldeans are forced to join the Islamic State or they are killed.
As a result, there are more than 160,000 displaced Catholic Iraqis. 70,000 of those are on Arabo's waiting list, he told NBC7, and have been matched with 70,000 Americans who have said they would provide a home to the refugees when they come to the U.S.
The prominent Chaldean businessman, who is president and CEO of the Neighborhood Market Association in San Diego, called for a more robust response to the crisis from government officials.
“Our extractions are at night, when many of our government officials are asleep and we are doing everything we can to rescue these innocent survivors of a genocide," Arabo said. "This is our last resort, not our first, but in the absence of Washington we have to do something."
NBC 7 has reached out to ICE officials about the "underground railroad." Twenty four Iraqi nationals are in custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Otay Detention Facility in San Diego, ICE officials said. Six nationals previously in ICE custody were criminally charged in federal court with providing false information on their immigration applications and are now in custody of the U.S. Marshals office, ICE Public Affairs Office Lauren Mack told NBC7.
"Decisions regarding whether individuals will be detained while their immigration proceedings are pending are made solely by the Department of Homeland Security following a comprehensive review of each case," part of a statement from Mack read.
Those Iraqis were not passengers on Arabo's “underground railroad,” he told NBC7.
Despite some fraudulent cases, Arabo said, many Chaldeans and others are in need of refuge.
Arabo said his "underground railroad" can't move people out of Iraq fast enough. He is pushing Congress to draft legislation that would give Chaldeans direct access to asylum and is pleading for action with the State Department and Obama Administration.
More than 60,000 Chaldeans live in El Cajon, east of San Diego, where the refugees have found temporary safety. It is the largest concentration of Chaldeans in the U.S. after Detroit.