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US asylum laws endanger Mexican victims of drug gangs

US refusal to recognize collusion of Mexican public officials with drug cartels imperils asylees, say legal experts

The Obama administration’s refusal to recognize the Mexican government’s complicity with criminal groups is making it nearly impossible for Mexicans fleeing violence to apply for asylum in the United States, according to legal experts.

Mexican asylum requests have skyrocketed in recent years, quadrupling to 9,206 in 2012 from 2006, when the Mexican government, in conjunction with the U.S., launched an offensive against criminal drug gangs. Despite the gangs’ reign of terror, more than 90 percent of asylum requests from Mexico are denied, according to Carlos Spector, a Texas-based attorney who has represented hundreds of asylum seekers.

In order to be granted asylum, an applicant must demonstrate persecution or a reasonable expectation of persecution based on the categories of nationality, race, religion or belonging to a social group, as well as show that persecutors are either foreign government agents or part of a group that a foreign government is unwilling or unable to control.

Jason Dzubow, a Washington D.C.-based immigration attorney, says that the high number of rejections may be due in part to a U.S. immigration policy that is guided by archaic political considerations.

“U.S. asylum laws are an instrument of foreign policy,” said Dzubow. “They were designed to protect people from Communism after World II. It wasn’t really defined for people fleeing gang violence.”

He pointed to Cuba as an example. “Cubans face no difficulties entering the U.S. because their communist government is statutorily deemed persecutory," under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, Dzubow said. Cubans, he says, are granted legal residence the moment they step foot in the U.S.

Many immigrants who seek asylum face extortion by drug gangs, added Dzubow, which doesn't fit neatly into one of the protected asylum categories.

According to Spector, though, asylum laws are not the problem.

"Politics is complicating the process,” said Spector. “There’s sufficient evidence to grant asylum in many of these cases because of the symbiotic relationship between the political establishment and organized crime in Mexico."

The 43 Mexican students who disappeared in September outside the town of Iguala appear to be the latest victims of that alleged collusion. The revelation that the city's mayor, José Luis Abarca, ordered police to intercept the students triggered massive protests throughout the country.

The involvement of local officials, including some 40 police, in the abductions represented a damning indictment of the official narrative about the war on drugs, according to the immigration attorneys.

The notion that a culture of impunity reigns in Mexico becomes difficult to refute when looking at recent government figures. In 2013, 93.8 percent of all crimes committed in Mexico went unreported or were not investigated, according to the Independent. The fact that these drug gangs operate with impunity indicates that the state is authorizing the crimes, Spector said. 

“There has been bi-national conspiracy ever since the war on drugs began to intentionally conceal violence in Mexico,” said Spector. “For the U.S. to publicly acknowledge the role of the Mexican state in fueling drug-related violence would also mean a recognition that the war on drugs is an abject failure."

Dzubow says that even if a nexus between the state and drug-related violence could be shown, the fact that many undocumented Mexicans living in the U.S. wait for years before applying for asylum discredits their claim in the eyes of judges.

“In order to obtain asylum, you’re required to file within a year of arrival,” said Dzubow. “A lot of these applicants have been here for a long period of time and have no defense. It becomes a last ditch effort to seek asylum.”

Faced with seemingly insurmountable standards, immigration lawyers are forced to be creative, said Dzubow. "Lawyers have been slowly expanding the category of 'social group' since the mid 90s to include families."

Sometimes gangs target entire families, which qualifies as a social group in some cases, according to Spector. That ground, he says, has been accepted by some judges.

Spector said that of the 12 asylum cases he has won, not a single one was issued with a decision, making it difficult to decipher an overarching legal standard. “I don’t know what they based their decision on. But I do know the arguments we’ve advanced,” he said.

“We wasted the treasury and Mexican blood on the war on drugs,” said Spector. “Everything has backfired and the chickens are now coming home to roost.”

With The Associated Press

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