Federal immigration officials are reporting a surge in the number of Mexicans crossing the border to seek asylum in the U.S., an increase analysts say is due to the drug violence and criminal activity that claimed a record 5,300 lives in Mexico last year.
The surge creates a huge workload for immigration officials, since American law prevents sending asylum-seekers home before they have gone through a monthslong legal process, which almost always proves fruitless. Most of the asylum-seekers wind up being found ineligible and sent back over the border.
But first they must fill out paperwork to apply for asylum. Then they are fingerprinted and go through background checks. After an applicant receives an interview notice, he is interviewed by an asylum officer from Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, to determine his eligibility. Once the asylum officer makes a decision, his supervisor must review it. Only then does an applicant receive a decision.
That process is expensive, since each case can take up to four months to resolve, and American taxpayers pay to keep the asylum-seekers in protective custody while they await a decision, which almost always isn't in their favor.
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2,231 Mexicans sought asylum in the United States in fiscal 2008 – up from 1,366 in 2006, before drug violence in Mexico began to escalate. And it is not just the number of applicants that is increasing – the number of approved applications has more than doubled from 61 in 2006 to 123 in 2008.
"The issue of asylum claims is one part of a number of signs we're seeing that are the results of border violence," says Michael Friel, director of media relations at Customs and Border Protection.
Few of the Mexicans are actually eligible to be given asylum status. According to the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, those seeking asylum in the United States must face persecution in their homeland based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinions.
Escaping violence from drug wars does not make a person eligible to be granted asylum in the U.S.
"Fleeing violence in a particular region of Mexico doesn't provide me a basis to claim asylum under our immigration laws," says Kathleen Walker, immigration attorney and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association in El Paso Texas.
The process for seeking asylum is strict; an applicant has to prove not only that he is being persecuted in his country of origin, but that he also has a "credible fear" of persecution. He must also prove that there is nowhere in his country that he can go.
"If I can go to another area of Mexico, and it's not something that is countrywide, then the element of persecution is not going to be established," Walker told FOXNews.com. "CBP has to assess whether or not this person belongs to a particular class, they have a particular political belief, or whatever it may be that one can fall into the grounds that one can be granted asylum on. Just because you're fleeing generic violence is not a grounds to seek asylum and have it granted."
But some human rights activists say the asylum-seekers deserve assistance once they're here, regardless of whether they are in fact eligible.
"People who are fleeing violence often have special needs, and before you can even consider the political issues that come with it, the first response should be how you help these people with their basic needs," says Cynthia Buiza, Director of Policy and Advocacy for CHIRLA, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
"If there is a need from a very vulnerable population, such as the elderly, children, pregnant women, I think there's just this most basic moral, ethical responsibility to help people who have, who are in a dire situation like that."
But those working to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. disagree.
"This is going to be part of their ploy, part of their plan," says Al Garza, President of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, a citizens organization whose members patrol the border to alert Border Patrol agents to illegal immigrants entering the country.
Garza believes that the Mexicans' requests for asylum are just another way for aliens jumping the fence to get into the U.S. without going through the proper channels.
"They use all these excuses that they come up with – that (seeking asylum from violence) would obviously be one of them," he said.
Immigration lawyers say they don't believe the U.S. will reach a point where it cannot afford to keep all of the asylum-seekers here, but they do agree that the immigration system will be heavily strained. Already, asylum officers are working with insufficient resources to process the number of applicants.
According to a 2005 survey by the Immigration Policy Center, 93 percent of surveyed asylum officers said they routinely worked overtime, without pay, in order to avoid a backlog of cases. Some also said that they didn't have enough time to thoroughly address each case, leading to the fear that they may have made wrong decisions in granting asylum.