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“If someone had told me about the journey, I would not have believed them.” His epic trip underscores the challenge of protecting U. borders in the face of agile networks of smugglers, corrupt officials who arrange travel documents and desperate immigrants willing to pay thousands of dollars for the journey. “It is a major concern for us.” In retrospect, it was inevitable that Tekle would have to leave home after he confronted military officials at his school.

His family arranged for him to be smuggled into Sudan. Tekle said his parents, in Eritrea, asked a businessman they knew, who was traveling to Khartoum, the capital, to ferry money for more smugglers to get Tekle to Brazil — a steppingstone to the United States well known to Eritrean migrants.

But Tekle said he knew even then that this was only a first step. The smugglers, whom his parents hired for him, took Tekle through a long hike across open fields studded with sharp thorns. Even early on, Tekle’s journey showed how smugglers form complex networks to move people across borders.

He got names and numbers for smugglers in various countries and references about reliability and cost. But after a visit to the airport, Tekle’s Brazilian smuggler decided that it would be safer for Tekle to take a bus to Venezuela and to continue on to Colombia by bus. In Colombia, a smuggler named John offered to use the South African passport to get Tekle through Bogota’s airport immigration checks and then to Honduras. Tekle balked and turned to another smuggler, who asked for $450 to get him into Panama.

“I was so scared,” he said, speaking in Tigrinya, one of the two main languages of Eritrea, as he told his story to a reporter through an interpreter working for his attorney, Jason Dzubow. security officials openly worry about the risk posed by porous international borders. Spero, deputy assistant director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which enforces immigration laws.

This launched his determination to flee in what would become a 17-month voyage to the Washington area, which concluded with his being granted asylum this month.

Tekle, now 24, said in an interview that he paid thousands of dollars to smugglers to arrange his passage across a dozen countries — a journey made possible only by fake travel documents and bribery.

Tekle’s schoolmates cheered as guards escorted him away.