Ciudad Juárez police officer Jose Alarcon fled Mexico to the United States in 2008 after a series of horrific events – he himself was injured and his partner killed in a shootout with organized crime, and then he was threatened by criminal gangs when he refused to accept bribes to overlook their activities. Seeking refuge for his family, he sought asylum in the United States, but a Dallas immigration judge denied Alarcon’s request, ruling that this was a “risk that police officers are supposed to take.”Jose Alarcon is far from alone. Recent studies have uncovered that the vast majority of Mexicans who seek asylum in the United States are turned away. The Executive Office for Immigration Review’s documents show that in FY2010, only 49 of 3231 (1.5%) Mexican asylum requests were granted, compared to 3795 out of 10,087 (37.6%) Chinese requests or 234 out of 563 (41.6%) Colombian cases.
Violence related to organized crime has led to 40,000 deaths in Mexico since 2006, so it is unsurprising that a growing number of Mexicans have fled their homes and communities to seek haven elsewhere – including asylum in the United States. However, many immigration judges have ruled that asylum applicants from Mexico cannot prove “a well-founded fear of persecution on account of the person's race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group” – criteria for obtaining asylum in the United States. However, based on the discrepancy between Mexican cases and others, it suggests that immigration judges hold a very high threshold for Mexican plaintiffs, or that politics play into decisions more than they should.
Human rights defenders, including activists and journalists who speak out against both the cartels’ violence and abuses by the military have increasingly found themselves and their families targeted for violence – and forced to seek protection as armed actors attempt to silence them. Emilio Gutierrez, a journalist in Ciudad Juárez, fled with his son from the city in June of 2008 after receiving threats from the military following his reporting on grave human rights abuses committed by soldiers and filing a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights claiming that the Mexican government cannot protect its citizens from military abuses. Gutierrez believes that returning to Mexico would be a death sentence, but the track record for Mexican asylum seekers doesn’t bode well for him – and the application process and long wait times for traumatized asylum seekers can be full of obstacles, as well as emotionally wrenching. Recognizing the lack of support, advocates and community groups in the El Paso area have joined together to form a coalition to provide support for asylum seekers.
Carlos Spector, an immigration lawyer in El Paso, Texas who has represented Gutierrez and others seeking asylum, points to the United States’ financial and political interests with the Mexican government. Spector claims that, to avoid straining the relationship between the two governments, judges tend to avoid making decisions that would suggest the Mexican government is incapable of protecting its citizens, or that its police and army are the ones involved in human rights abuses. Laws are supposed to prevent the government from influencing asylum cases for political reasons, but Judge Bruce Einhorn, a retired immigration judge involved in drafting modern asylum law, does not deny there could be political pressure on judges. He comments:
“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. The problems that affect human rights in México are handled gingerly”
No question, Mexican refugees deserve as much consideration for political asylum as nationals from other countries who seek it. The violence against human rights defenders and journalists for their work is impossible to ignore, yet many immigration judges continue to reason that such cases don’t indicate a “well-founded fear of persecution.” Last year, Jorge Luis Aguirre became the first journalist to receive asylum since the militarized war against organized crime began, and this past June, rights advocate Cipriana Jurado became one of the first human rights advocates to receive asylum based on threats and persecution by the Mexican military. However, most human rights defenders in equally dangerous situations are not so lucky, and our immigration judges need to acknowledge the extent of the targeted violence and persecution committed by the cartels and the military rather than ignore the facts for the sake of politics.