TIJUANA, Mexico, Sept. 22 (AP)--U.N. officials urged about 150 Iraqi Chaldean Christian men, women and children to seek asylum in Mexico in order to expedite their release from a shabby Tijuana hotel where they've been held for two days.

The Chaldeans have been gathering the past few months in Tijuana and had planned to seek asylum in the United States, fearing religious persecution if they returned to their homeland.

They were being detained as part of what Mexican authorities called an investigation into immigration violations. It wasn't immediately known what prompted Wednesday's crackdown.

``The position of the U.N. actually is if they don't ask for political asylum in Mexico, the representative of the U.N. (in Baja California) can't do anything for them,'' Eduardo de la Pena, a spokesman for the local U.N. office, said Thursday. ``It is quickest if they ask for asylum first in Mexico and then try to get to the U.S.''

The Iraqis prefer to request asylum in the United States and, if rejected, would turn to Mexico, said Romil Gewarges, who came to help his sister-in-law and her family.

``They're waiting for the last minute to see what happens,'' Gewarges said.

The Royal Suites hotel has become an internationally known way station for Chaldeans seeking political asylum in the United States. In nearby San Diego, across the world's busiest port of entry, at least 77 Iraqis were detained by U.S. authorities this week after they tried to enter the United States without visas Wednesday.

On Thursday, Mexican officials allowed friends and relatives to meet briefly with the immigrants in a small room inside the hotel. Some visitors brought in snacks and cigarettes.

``It just broke my heart,'' said Hadeer Hanna Hurmez, who spoke with his parents for about 30 minutes. ``They're scared. They were crying all the time.''

Among the immigrants is an Iraqi soldier who fled the military but was caught and sent to prison, de la Pena said. He escaped prison and made it to Mexico.

``He's afraid because he's sure he's going to be hanged'' if he returns to Iraq, de la Pena said.

Another Chaldean presented U.S. documents granting him asylum but Mexican authorities would not immediately release him, de la Pena said.

Iraqi refugees had been staying at the hotel while waiting for American authorities to process asylum applications, according to relatives.

``I say to you death or asylum, nothing else!'' shouted one of the Iraqis, Talale Hanna, as he leaned out a window of the four-story hotel.

The number of applications from Iraqi Christians seeking asylum at the San Ysidro, Calif., border crossing has increased from virtually none last year to 172 in the past two months, said Robert Looney, the Immigration and Naturalization Service's director of regional asylum.

The San Diego area, just a half-hour away, has the second-largest community of Chaldeans in the United States. The Detroit area has the largest.

Chaldeans number about 800,000 worldwide, about half of whom are in Iraq. Some 120,000 live in the United States, including an estimated 15,000 in San Diego County.

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