EL PASO, Texas – Carlos Gutierrez passed out as the large blade cut through his legs — punishment for his refusal to pay a Mexican gang extortion fees from his successful catering business in northern Mexico.
Four men had forced him into the back of his vehicle at a local park before slicing just under his knees. He spent two weeks in critical condition and sought asylum in Texas as soon as he was able.
Now, facing long odds on getting approval to stay in the U.S., Gutierrez has been staging an unusual demonstration to call attention to his plight and to the thousands of other Mexicans who seek asylum in the U.S. each year from drug cartel violence, with little success. Gutierrez has been riding his bicycle through Texas using his prosthetic legs, talking to everyone he meets.
"If someone from Cuba or from Venezuela can get asylum, why not someone from Mexico?" said Gutierrez, who spent nearly two weeks on his 800-mile bicycle trek from El Paso to Central Texas.
U.S. law allows asylum for those who have credible fear of persecution based on their race, religion, national origin, political status or membership in a particular social group.
But Mexican asylum seekers have struggled to convince U.S. courts they fit in any of these categories, with approval rates running 1 to 2 percent. By contrast, more than a fourth of immigrants from other Latin American countries such as Colombia and Venezuela were granted asylum last year. Many can cite ethnic or political grounds.
Since he hopped on his bicycle in El Paso on Oct. 28, Gutierrez has been making his case for a change in the system. His journey ended Saturday in Austin.
Along the way townspeople came out from shops and houses to wave and talk with him during rest stops. The 35-year-old endured rain, strong winds, flat tires and fatigue. On the fifth day, a prosthetic specialist met him to adjust his legs because he was bruising and blistering.
"There were times when we thought it'd be best to have him rest, to drive him to the next town to let his legs recover, but he'd say, 'No,'" said Jaqueline Armendariz, a member of the support team for the ride to Austin. "He has a mission."
Gutierrez said he never considered quitting.
It doesn't matter, he said, "how grave your wound was. What matters is that you get up. I have no legs, but I am on my feet."
The U.S. Executive Office for Immigration Review did not specifically comment on Gutierrez's case. However, immigration judges have acknowledged in court that asylum cases based on fear of crime or violence are difficult to make.
"I believe everything you just told me," immigration Judge Stephen Ruhle told a Mexican applicant at a recent hearing in which the man described being targeted by corrupt police officers for extortion money. "But asylum is not applicable to cases like yours."
Some scholars have argued that many applicants should qualify under a looser definition of "social group." A 2010 report by the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees said people who, on principle, refuse to pay extortion could be considered a group.
Other experts say the threats to individuals have evolved since asylum categories were defined in treaties after World War II.
"Now, people are fleeing different forms of persecution," said Karen Musalo, director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California. "There are women fleeing from domestic violence, genital mutilation or honor killings. There are people fleeing from drug cartels and gangs."
But others are skeptical. About 9,200 Mexicans sought asylum last year, up from 3,560 in 2008. The increase has prompted some lawmakers to suggest that immigrants are using the asylum system as a backdoor way to stay into the U.S. Applicants often wait more than two years for their court date. Gutierrez's case has been pending since 2011.
Philip Schrag, a professor of public interest law at Georgetown University, said many applications come from Mexicans who have been apprehended crossing illegally into the U.S.
"Many come seeking employment but are not threatened," he said.
Gutierrez has worked in a burrito shop to help support his wife and children while his case goes through the system.
He said he has put his life in Chihuahua behind him.
"I'd rather think about the future," he said.