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Drug war creates new class of refugees

Business owners, law enforcement officers, journalists and other professionals are among those seeking asylum in the U.S. -- even when it means sitting in jail.

March 04, 2009|Andrew Becker and Patrick J. McDonnell

EL PASO — The Juarez police lieutenant was recovering from three gunshot wounds, the result of an assault by hit men for a drug cartel. His name was on a death list brazenly posted at a monument for fallen peace officers. Lt. Salvador Hernandez Arvizu didn't like his odds of surviving in Mexico. So he fled his hospital bed, hoping to take refuge in the U.S.

At a border post in El Paso, he filled out immigration paperwork, made a formal request for political asylum -- and was taken directly to jail.

The Juarez policeman is part of a new breed of would-be refugees -- business owners, law enforcement officers, journalists and other professionals -- on the run from Mexico's vicious drug wars. Increasingly, they are seeking safe haven in the U.S. by filing for asylum.

The number of asylum requests filed at U.S. border entries by Mexican nationals nearly doubled to almost 200 in the last fiscal year, and the pace has increased this year. Seventy Mexican asylum-seekers filed petitions in the first quarter, most of them in El Paso and San Diego. The figures are small compared with the vast scale of illegal immigration, but many fear explosive growth if the bloodshed worsens.

Drug violence in Mexico has claimed at least 7,000 lives in little more than a year, most of them along the border and many carried out to maximize their gruesome effect. Mass killings and beheadings have had a terrorizing effect on border towns from Texas to Tijuana.

It is unclear whether any asylum requests have been granted in cases based on fear of drug violence. Most of the recent cases are still working their way through the system. Some refugees from the narco-wars are hiding on the U.S. side of the border, uncertain whether to apply for asylum -- and risk being deported if their petitions are denied.

"We're at the beginning of the problem," said Bruce J. Einhorn, a retired immigration judge. "It's indicative of a new and emerging class of persecuted people from Mexico."

The surge in applications has heightened debate about how broadly to interpret asylum rules and whether to detain applicants while they wait for their cases to be decided.

Asylum-seekers are among the most desperate people confronting immigration officials. Deporting them to their homeland can be a death sentence. But under U.S. law, fear of criminal violence is not recognized as grounds for asylum.

Applicants must show that they are members of a social, political or other group targeted for persecution -- a difficult standard to meet. Asylum requests are usually associated with people fleeing civil wars or dictatorships.

Mexican applicants generally do not claim to be victims of government persecution. Rather, many argue that Mexican authorities have failed to protect them from the drug cartels -- a hard-to-prove variation on the established criteria for asylum.

The applicants are not immigrants in search of economic opportunities. They are typically middle-class, employed and frightened.

"It's very hard to accept that I can never return to Mexico, but that is the lamentable reality," said Emilio Gutierrez Soto, a regional newspaper reporter for El Diario in northern Chihuahua state who has an asylum request pending.

Gutierrez said his troubles began with a series of articles he wrote that criticized the Mexican military, which is leading the country's anti-drug efforts. After a death threat, Gutierrez said, he headed for the border with his 15-year-old son. He left behind a home and career.

Like the wounded police lieutenant, the Mexican journalist was jailed immediately in El Paso by U.S. authorities. All asylum-seekers arriving at border posts face detention. Gutierrez's son was sent to a juvenile detention facility but later was released to relatives.

The case has prompted advocates for immigrant rights to approach the Obama administration with renewed appeals to allow such asylum-seekers to remain free while they await rulings on their applications. Journalism groups also rallied to his defense, and Gutierrez was released unexpectedly in January after seven months in custody.

"I was prepared to stay in jail as long as it took, since I know I'm a dead man in Mexico," Gutierrez said in an interview. He and his son have been reunited and are living with family members in the U.S.

Juarez police Lt. Hernandez, however, abandoned his asylum bid and returned to Mexico, according to El Paso lawyer Carlos Spector, who represented him.

"People, especially policemen, just get tired of being in jail," Spector said.

Hernandez could not be reached for comment. His former lawyer thinks he is in hiding in Mexico.

The increase in applications has prompted heightened federal scrutiny of asylum petitions.

"The agency has been paying closer attention to the issue of Mexico's drug-related violence," said Jedidah Hussey, deputy chief of the asylum division for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

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