EL PASO — A young policewoman feels trapped living in abysmal despair after fleeing a Mexican town near the border. She attempted to uphold the law in a society fed by narco-violence, but faced insurmountable opposition. Now, her only escape hinges on the uncertainty of the U.S. legal system.
“You have to run away like a rat because you don’t know who to be careful from,” she said in resigned desperation. “You feel like everyone wants to kill you.”
This woman, who refused to provide her name because her life is in danger, has seen the worst of her society from the known criminals and those who are supposed to uphold justice. The lines between the two are usually indistinguishable.
“To everyone it must be so easy, but it’s not. You don’t live. You don’t sleep. I don’t stop thinking,” she said.
Her story is now an unknown statistic amidst the thousands of asylum applications from México that flood the U.S. immigration courts and whose judges are unlikely to be swooned by emotional pleas.
More than 35,000 have died in the crossfire since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the narco-cartels in 2006. Scrambling to escape the engulfing brutality, thousands have pursued asylum only to be turned away by U.S. courts. Some asylum advocates contend there is not only a disparity in the U.S. asylum policy, but a reticence to accept applications because of the potential diplomatic quandary such action may cause between the U.S. and México.
“The U.S. government is reluctant to grant political asylum to Mexican applicants because doing so means recognizing that aid from Washington is financing military abuses against the Mexican civilian population,” said Carlos Spector, an asylum attorney in El Paso, Texas.
Several officials dissuade the argument that political ideology factors into U.S. asylum decisions, while others deliberate its consequences.
Retired immigration Judge Bruce Einhorn, who helped draft the 1980 modern law of asylum, explains that although the law prohibits the federal government from politically interfering with asylum decisions, he doesn’t exclude the existence of diplomatic pressure among U.S. judges.
“There is a real sense in the executive branch of our government that the relationship needs to be as smooth as possible and as a result if you read the state department’s human rights reports on México, which are part of the evidence that are used by asylum adjudicators, you’ll find that it’s a very delicately frayed description of democracy in México,” said Einhorn. “The problems that affect human rights in México are handled gingerly.”
There is also growing uncertainty of where the bilateral relationship is headed due to the recent revelations of Wikileaks cables.
U.S. ambassador to México Carlos Pascual resigned in March after the cables showed his statements over the Mexican’s military failure to act on intelligence tips. Wikileaks also shed light into the U.S. government’s active involvement in Mexican security affairs, which Mexican officials have refuted.
John Ritchie, former State Department official coordinator of U.S.-México Border Affairs, summed up the relationship to a “Difficult marriage, but Divorce is not possible.”
“The relationship is frustrating at times, but neither one realistically considers that this is going to be a break,” said Ritchie.
The Executive Office of Immigration Review reported that more than 3,200 Mexicans filed for asylum in 2010 and 1,671 applications were withdrawn. Only 49 were granted.
In comparison, Colombia’s 234 asylum applications from 563 received applications were granted and China had 3,795 asylum petitions approved last year from 10,087, according to EOIR.
Despite the glaring disparities, lucid explanations as to why Mexican asylum seekers, seen more as refugees by many in the face of unprecedented social turbulence and human rights violations, are not extended the same consideration as those from other countries remain unknown.
The debate stalls on the implication that approving more cases from México may overwhelm the already burdened U.S. immigration courts with a backlog in asylum petitions due to the geographic proximity with México. Even though the violence is cause for compassionate consideration, it’s doubtful there will be any appreciable shift in the U.S.’s asylum policy.
Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, overseer of México’s National Commission on Human Rights at Ciudad Juárez, argues otherwise. He said the U.S. government should not base asylum on political policies, but life and death.
“They’re returning them so they can die,” said Hickerson in Spanish. Hickerson added that the United States should assume more responsibility to protect Mexicans wishing to flee the violence since it is they who are the primary consumers of Mexican narcotics.
Life in México, especially for journalists, business owners, law enforcement, politicians, and human rights advocates, is a risky venture. Yet, even civilians face daily threats of fear and intimidation as the cartels continue to mock the democratic process.
A recent study shows that 230,000 persons have been displaced in México with probably half of them seeking refuge in the United States, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. The study indicates there is little support from the Mexican government for the internal displacement.
“What we’re seeing is a massacre,” said Eduardo Beckett, an asylum lawyer with the Center of Las Americas in El Paso, Texas.
He perceives that U.S. officials are bypassing Mexican asylum applications as frivolous claims. “ICE (Immigration Customs and Enforcement Agency), in particular, their lawyers they present México as a great country that respects human rights.”
Beckett has yet to win one case in the last three years.
Nationally, judges have denied 86 percent of asylum applications from México between 2008 and 2010, according to TRAC, a non-partisan database of U.S federal immigration enforcement. According to asylum advocates the courts typically use an outdated State Department report that does not accurately describe the current atmosphere in México.
Einhorn suggested that many immigration judges do not accept that México, as a democracy, has problems of persecution particularly in local governments. He said there is also profound disagreement as to whether persons who flee persecution at the hands of drug cartels are eligible for asylum.
In order to prove asylum, the “asylee” must establish that he or she is unable to return to the country of origin because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, nationality, religion, membership in a social group or political opinion.
For some lawyers including Beckett an inconceivable skew exists with Mexican asylum claims particularly due to the ambiguous role between law enforcement — the military and police officers — and the narco-mercenaries.
Craig Shagin, an asylum attorney in Pennsylvania, said he’s had clients from the Juárez Valley testifying to the threats they received from the Mexican military to evacuate or they would be shot.
“So they (military) literally cleared out a valley and what is the Mexican government’s response to this? Nothing,” said Shagin. “Could you imagine if that were to happen in the United States where a section of the country was basically invaded by the U.S. military at the behest of the cartel and nothing happened?”
Shagin said persecution based on a social group in México makes for a highly contested case due to the limited scope of legality on which judges determine their decisions. Previous briefs outlining evidence of torture threats were at times completely disregarded, he said.
Emilio Gutiérrez Soto a journalist in the state of Chihuahua who wrote stories of human rights abuses by the army in his region fled with his teenage son to the United States in 2008 after receiving death threats. Gutiérrez Soto was detained for seven months and his case is still pending.
Regarding Soto’s case, the Mexican military refused to investigate his claims denying any abuse, according to cited information in a letter sent to the Ambassador of the United States of America to Canada by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.
“His case implicates the Mexican military, which receives much of the $450 million in aid from the Mérida Initiative the United States gives to the Mexican government for the war against drugs,” the letter states.
Another high-profile asylum case involved Jorge Luis Aguirre, a reporter for La Polaka in Ciudad Juárez, who was threatened by drug gangs in 2008. Unlike Soto, he was granted asylum in September 2010 and was not detained. Several lawyers have commented that the reason why Aguirre was not detained is because his asylum petition was affirmative and he crossed the border with legal documents.
Affirmative applications are asylum requests that are approved through the Department of Homeland Security, which means it doesn’t go through the immigration court system. Defensive applications are denied affirmative petitions. Soto’s case was defensive and he had no legal documentation when he approached immigration officials.
It’s also harder for a lawyer to establish the merits of a case while someone is detained.
Still, due to broad federal oversight of asylum decisions, determining persecution based on social group is more often decided on a case-by-case basis causing more havoc among lawyers who argue the process is subjective and inconsistent.
For those in the most distressful situations, facing México’s threatening consequences is preferable than pondering a vague outcome. In 2010, a Juárez police officer seeking U.S. asylum fled a scene of shattered windows filled with bullet holes. Fed up with his long overdue case, he returned to México and was shot dead.
In Ciudad Juárez 111,103 homes were abandoned and in Praxedis G. Guerrero, a nearby town 60 miles east, 61 percent of homes were vacated. Marisol Valles, the 21-year-old college student who took over the daunting task of chief of police there in October 2010 fled to Texas seeking asylum in March 2011 amid death threats.
The town has undergone turf battles from the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels. Victims say gunmen have forced them to leave.
The streets are plagued with murder, torture and kidnappings. Adorning the influx of media coverage are images of dismembered bodies. Deserted homes have left scars of rampant shootings, while deafening moans of families torn apart rescind to silent pleas.
“It’s an unfortunate side effect of what’s going on now,” said Ricardo Alday, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington D.C., while referring to the number of asylum petitioners. “We don’t like it. We’re trying to do as much as we can as a government and a state to try to guarantee security for everybody.”
Already committed to more than $1.4 billion to counteract the narco-violence in México through the Mérida Initiative since 2007, the U.S. government has drawn staunch criticism from human rights activists claiming those policies are only providing more incentive for unfettered aggression by the military against its own citizens.
Documented complaints of military abuse since 2007 have ranged from 4,300 cases of arbitrary executions, torture, sexual assault and stealing, according to the Tlachinollan Center for Human Rights.
Charles Luoma-Overstreet, press advisor and spokesperson of the Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department clarified that granting asylum is a legal rather than a political decision. He also reiterated the importance of U.S. border relations.
“In their recent (March 3) meeting, Presidents Obama and Calderón reiterated that the U.S.-México bilateral relationship is based on robust, multi-layered institutional, economic, social and cultural links and that it is has never been stronger,” wrote Luoma-Overstreet. “The Secretary has made it clear that the U.S.-México relationship is “one of the most important relationships that exist between any two countries in the world.”
Contrary to such remarks, the sobs that resonate from the young policewoman mirror a detached fallacy.
With no guarantee death threats will cease to consume her life and no one to turn to, this former municipal officer is left stranded. There is no protection and benefits for officers. Police officials are treated like the lowest scum blamed for the corruption, but they’re not the problem, she said.
“The millions of dollars sent to the Mexican government instead of helping the people they (U.S.) are aiding the highest cartel. The federales are using it against the people and pocketing the money and what do we do? Continue to suffer? Thanks? Yes, thanks they’re helping this damned corrupt government so there could be more innocent deaths,” she said stressing that the arrival of the military in 2007 coincided with the start of the violence.