Poblano was mayor of the Mexican border city of Ojinaga, southeast of El Paso. After he identified government officials as drug traffickers, the Chihuahua governor accused him of being a drug trafficker, and Poblano fled to the U.S. With Spector's help, he won asylum in 1991, one of the first Mexicans to do so.
"Carlos very much takes on these matters from a human rights perspective, and he has been successful in some cases where many would think he would not be," said Kathleen Walker, El Paso-based past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. She called Spector "a true crusader in trying to push the asylum envelope."
Spector argues that his clients are at risk because the Mexican government cannot or will not protect them.
Each asylum case can involve multiple people and take years to resolve. Out of 76 asylum applications Spector handled since 2008, only five have been granted, covering 15 people. None of his cases have been denied, though a few applicants have given up and returned to Mexico.
Among Spector's successes is the case of activist Saul Reyes Salazar, 46, a former city secretary in Guadalupe, who was granted asylum in January along with his wife and three children after several members of his politically active family were threatened and killed — by cartel members and corrupt Mexican soldiers, he alleges. Since 2010, more than 30 members of his family have fled to the U.S., many seeking asylum.
Alejandro Hernandez Pacheco, 45, a cameraman for the Mexico City-based network Televisa, was also granted asylum last year after he and his crew were kidnapped while covering problems at a prison in Durango in 2010, a crime he alleged the Mexican government helped the Sinaloa cartel carry out.
A Mexican government official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak, acknowledged security problems in northern Mexico, particularly in Chihuahua and Tamaulipas states: "We know there are cases where people have been abused by police and the military, and we are dealing with them."
"We don't know the reasons for all people asking for asylum, but we do know people are leaving for violence-related reasons. We're not denying that. We face challenges and vulnerabilities," he said. "Our loss is your gain, in many ways — we don't want to lose young people, entrepreneurial people to go and live in another country."
He pointed to judicial reforms in Mexico that could increase prosecutions, but said it's difficult to hold officials accountable when victims flee.
U.S. immigration officials and government attorneys have argued that some of Spector's clients do not qualify for asylum — that they're no more persecuted than anyone else in Mexico.
"What this attempts to do is to stretch the definition" of asylum, said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the conservative, Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform. "The history has been once people realize there is an avenue of getting into the United States, if you say certain magic words, everyone starts using that."
As Counts, the citizenship and immigration spokesman, noted, violent conditions can support an asylum application, but "violence alone is not sufficient to qualify for asylum."
Jose Alberto Holguin crossed to El Paso from Juarez last year with Spector's help after his 26-year-old son was gunned down at a bar in 2009. Holguin, whose family runs a bus company, says the attack was punishment after he refused to pay bribes to La Linea, a gang working with the Juarez cartel that has included corrupt police.
"We're not people trying to take advantage of this country's system," Holguin, 50, said. "Most of the people seeking asylum here in the U.S. suffered a tragedy. There are those who have lost more than us — three, four sons."