EL PASO, Texas – Dozens of Mexicans — including police officers, businessmen, at least one prosecutor and a journalist — are asking for political asylum in the U.S. in a desperate and probably hopeless bid to escape an unprecedented wave of drug-related killings and kidnappings south of the border.
Under U.S. law, fear of crime is not, in itself, grounds for political asylum.
But the sharp spike in asylum applications from the areas wracked by drug-cartel violence — and the willingness of asylum-seekers to sit behind bars in the U.S. for months while they await a decision — are a measure of how bad things are in Mexico and how fearful people have become.
"It's hard. I've been doing this work for 25 years. I've been a reporter for 25 years," said newspaperman Emilio Gutierrez Soto, who is seeking asylum. "We had a life there, a house, my family. It's my country. But it's not safe for a journalist."
Between October and July, at least 63 people have sought political asylum at border crossings in West Texas and New Mexico, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That is almost double the 33 claims made for the entire fiscal year that ended in October. Elsewhere in South Texas, asylum applications are also up sharply.
In other sectors along the 1,969-mile border, asylum applications are coming in at the usual pace.
Immigration lawyers say they believe most of the asylum claims in the West Texas and New Mexico sector are motivated by the bloodshed in Mexico, the worst of which is just across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez and surrounding Chihuahua state.
Juarez, a city of 1.3 million, has seen a record-breaking 500-plus murders so far this year. High-ranking police officers are shot in broad daylight. Businessmen who are not necessarily mixed up in the drug trade are kidnapped, held for ransom and gruesomely killed if their families don't pay up. Children have been caught in the crossfire.
"There's been nothing like this in terms of cartel activities," said George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert with the College of William and Mary in Virginia. "In the 1970s there were guerillas in several very poor southern states. But there's not been any kind of violence like this."
Immigration lawyers representing the El Paso-area asylum-seekers say they have never seen such a flood of people seeking a haven from violence in Mexico. Up until recently, most asylum requests in this sector were made by people who said they were being persecuted by Mexico's ruling party because of their political activities.
Immigration lawyers say they are representing several law enforcement officers and others who were targeted for their efforts to stop or expose the murderous activities on both sides of the war between the Mexican military and the drug cartels.
As for the businessmen, they include a 37-year-old used car salesman who was kidnapped and held until his family paid a $40,000 ransom, said his attorney, Carlos Spector, an immigration lawyer handling numerous other asylum cases, including Gutierrez's.
Immigration officials would not discuss why people were applying for asylum or what their prospects were. "The numbers show that there is an increase, but that's all we can say," said Roger Maier, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman in El Paso.
The federal government rarely, if ever, grants asylum to a citizen of a U.S. ally who is in trouble because of choices he made — such as where he lives or what he does for a living.
Asylum cases hinge on proving that a person is being persecuted because of his race, religion, political view, nationality or membership in a particular social group, according to Micaela Guthrie, an El Paso immigration attorney. The applicant has to prove that his government is either part of the persecution or unable or unwilling to protect him.
"It has to be an immutable characteristic, something so fundamental that you shouldn't be forced to change, or can't change," Guthrie said. Guthrie said being a police officer or journalist usually will not qualify a person for protection, since the person can often find other work or move to another part of the country.
Gutierrez, a 45-year-old reporter in Ascension, Mexico, said he received death threats nearly every day for more than two years as he wrote stories about the Mexican army's rough treatment of civilians in its search for drug cartel members. He said that in June, men identifying themselves as soldiers ransacked his house, and he was told they were planning to kill him.
Gutierrez headed with his 15-year-old son to a border crossing in New Mexico, about 170 miles west of El Paso. Now he is jailed at a U.S. immigration detention center in El Paso. His son is held in a separate institution.
Spector said Gutierrez may have a strong case if he can prove that the Mexican army threatened him and is likely to kill him.
There are other legal ways to immigrate to the United States. But obtaining a visa can take several months. Many of those asking for asylum show up instead at a border crossing and announce their intentions, upon which they are immediately brought over into the U.S. — and placed in a detention center with no chance of bail.
In contrast, those who sneak across the border, get caught and then ask for asylum are allowed out on bail. "They get more if they come in illegally than by doing it right," Spector said.
Those seeking asylum also include Salvador Hernandez Arvizu, a police lieutenant in Juarez who was named on a cartel hit list and fled after being shot repeatedly in an ambush earlier this year, said his lawyer, Spector.
Spector said his clients know the odds are against them. But still, leaving Mexico for at least a few months is worth it, he said.
"They don't have many options and these cases are life and death," the lawyer said. "Sometimes in immigration law, you get paid to lose slowly."