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But unlike refugees from other war-torn nations who were living under the violent thumb of drug lords and found safety on American shores, the United States is accepting only a fraction of the number of Mexicans seeking asylum. In the midst of a politically unrecognized war, fueled by Americans' demand for illegal drugs and their ever growing arsenal of easily available weapons, the U.S government turns a deaf ear to Mexicans who are running for their lives.
In a shabby office of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center minutes west of downtown El Paso, attorney Eduardo Beckett and his staff of unpaid interns, who hail from some of the best law schools in the United States, are scrambling to finish Sarah's appeal. The deadline is less than 48 hours away, and there is still a lot of work before they can file the paperwork with the Board of Immigration Appeals in Falls Church, Virginia.
Beckett, a young-looking man with a square jaw and a serious face, calmly orders his workers around as he proofreads. He believes the immigration court erred in several key areas, including that the judge minimized the gravity of the threats the police made against Sarah and her family. His cell phone rings every few minutes, but he doesn't answer. His pockets are filled with dozens of scraps of papers with people's names and phone numbers. Since January, Beckett has talked to more than 500 possible clients. They all want his help. In El Paso, he is the patron saint of asylum seekers.
Yet he seldom wins. Obtaining asylum, especially for Mexican nationals, is nearly impossible.
Under U.S. asylum law, applicants must show that their government is unable or unwilling to protect them and that they are in danger of persecution because they voiced unpopular political opinions or because they belong to a particular ethnic, religious, political, or social group. The majority of people who are granted asylum are running away from civil wars, dictators, or communist rule.
A major legal hurdle is that the law does not explicitly include victims of crime, such as drug- and cartel-related violence. A key to winning is showing that the persecutor was acting in an official governmental capacity.
There are generally three viable types of cases: police officers afraid of being murdered for denouncing other officers who take bribes from drug lords, journalists who write about corruption and drug traffickers, and middle-class businessmen scared they will be kidnapped for ransom money.
In Sarah's case, Beckett tried to show that Sarah should be eligible for asylum under the political opinion and social group provisions of the law because she sought help from the police and military and was denied, and because she was targeted for being the daughter of a policeman who publicly denounced corruption. However, the immigration judge ruled that while her story was credible, it did not rise to the level of persecution. The judge stated that the police commander had a personal vendetta against her and that he was a "rogue police officer," not acting on behalf of the state. The judge suggested that relocation within Mexico may be the remedy for Sarah.
The ruling is emblematic of many asylum decisions for Mexican nationals.
"These cases are so difficult," says Carlos Spector, an asylum attorney whose office is next door to Beckett's. "You cannot win."
According to statistics from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice, fewer than 2 percent of Mexican nationals who applied for asylum from 2005 to 2009 were successful. Typically, there have been 2,700 to 3,400 applications each year, and 30 to 70 were granted.
By comparison, immigration judges grant asylum to people from Colombia, a country with historic drug cartel violence and corruption, at a rate more than 20 times that of Mexicans. Colombian refugees are more welcome even though, as University of Texas at El Paso professor of anthropology Howard Campbell states: "Colombia has been able to keep drug trafficking and politics more separate than in Mexico and overall has a better functioning political system vis-à-vis cartels."
Asylum experts concede that because Mexico is a neighboring country with easier access to the United States, the numbers are skewed by frivolous claims. But Spector estimates that at least 70 percent of people who ask for asylum at points of entry have credible fear of persecution.
"When they come across the bridge, they're scared shitless," he says. "So something must have happened."
He and Beckett blame the difficulty of winning a case in court on several factors. For one, they say, U.S. immigration attorneys are far more aggressive battling asylum claims involving Mexicans than other nationalities.
"The government will put two attorneys on a case with a Mexican and just one for anybody else," says Spector. "And they appoint much more seasoned attorneys. There seems to be a real emphasis on them, that 'You don't lose these cases.'"
One of the most common reasons for denial that immigration judges invoke is that the asylum seeker can relocate within Mexico safely. But immigration attorneys point to mountains of evidence, in the form of news stories and U.S. government reports from the State Department and Drug Enforcement Administration, that the cartels are sophisticated billion-dollar criminal organizations that dominate local and, in many instances, national law enforcement. In other words, despite what U.S. judges might think, if drug bandits and their police henchmen want someone dead, there really is nowhere to hide. The key, then, is proving that they really want a person dead.