Mexico Drug War Refugees Face Long Odds for Asylum

José Alfredo Holguín once had a lucrative bus company in Ciudad Juárez where he and his family lived comfortably.

The pride of developing a business disappeared when thugs from La Línea, the street enforcers of the Juárez Cartel, began extorting a weekly payment from him in 2008 that amounted to 40 percent of his revenue, then murdered his son and threatened his family.

“The guys from La Línea have federal and local connections,” he said. “We had to leave.”

The 50-year-old, who is married and has three children, knew it was no longer safe to stay in Mexico, so he and his family sought political asylum protection across the border.

What Holguín and thousands of other Mexican drug war refugees seeking asylum in the United States quickly discover is that they are not welcomed with open arms. Instead, their perseverance is stretched to the limit in a war of attrition with the immigration court system.

Asylum seekers are thrust into a complex and protracted system that generally rejects them, but in the meantime leaves them unemployed and fending for survival—sometimes for years, despite being eventually eligible for employment and other benefits.

Human rights advocates such as Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, an immigrant shelter in El Paso, Texas, feels Americans are largely to blame for the drug-related violence that is forcing so many to flee Mexico. Garcia says Americans should have a greater level of compassion for the people he calls “refugees.”

"These people are dying because of our consumption of drugs," Garcia said. "Hillary Clinton says all of these things about Syria's violation of human rights and it comes right back at us for ignoring these people seeking asylum."

Garcia says that while the ICE policy reform of January 2010 has loosened on-site restrictions and the likelihood of detention when appearing at the border, it still treats asylum seekers like criminals by classifying them as parolees while they are being processed, and it has done little to prompt immigration judges to approve more applications.

In 2011, some 6,100 Mexicans applied for asylum with 294, or 5 percent, receiving it. Mexicans accounted for only one percent of the total number of people who sought asylum in the United States. A year earlier, 3,200 Mexicans filed asylum applications, with 1,671 being withdrawn, and only 49 cases granted — a success rate of just 1.5 percent, according to the Latin America News Dispatch. In that time period, 41.6 percent of Colombian applications were approved, and 37.6 percent of Chinese applications were approved, according to the Executive Office of Immigration Review.

Seeking asylum is not a matter of showing up at a Port of Entry with a request to enter the United States because of a credible fear based on race, nationality, political stances or membership in a social group.

"Most of these people don't know what they're getting into when they show up at a Port of Entry," Garcia said. "The system is designed for the majority of these people to just give up, but they have no place to go. They can't go back to Mexico or they will be killed."

The applications can either be filed affirmatively or defensively.

In the affirmative process, the asylum seeker either has a border crossing card or has been savvy enough to seek the advice of an attorney before presenting themselves to ICE. This is less adversarial and has a greater chance of approval.

The defensive process is when an individual and their family flee their home, usually with nothing more than what is on their backs, because of a credible fear of criminals, or even the police or military.

In 2010, 20-year-old Marisol Valles was touted as the bravest woman in Mexico for taking the job of police chief in her town outside of Ciudad Juárez after her predecessor was decapitated by gangsters.

The threats began almost immediately and in six months she was at the border seeking asylum protection for her and her family, under the defensive process because she did not have documents. The once vibrant and idealistic criminal justice major was left unemployed and barely able to feed her family for more than a year until she received her work permit.

Garcia said he has seen a steady increase in referrals from ICE to house asylum seekers during the wait-and-see period. It is during this period, which can take months or even years, when applicants often become frustrated with their newly acquired state of limbo.

Asylum applicants may have escaped threats in Mexico, but now they face a new degree of poverty and disenfranchisement in the United States, according to Garcia. The applicant erroneously feels that legal employment is impossible but with time, patience and legal counseling they can apply for a work visa.

"Yeah, this is possible but it can take more than a year before ICE offers the individual an I-94 which then needs to be approved by the United States Customs and Immigration Services," Garcia said.

A researcher and human rights advocate from the Law Offices of Carlos Spector, in El Paso, Texas, who declined to provide his name because of frequent visits to Mexico, said the process is daunting.

“The biggest difference time-wise for affirmative and defensive employment applications is that an affirmative case usually takes three to six months before someone receives a decision, while a defensive claim will often take three to four years before being decided, and even when we have strong cases and request to have them moved up and heard quickly, we are denied that opportunity. Even when other family members have won their asylum cases in the affirmative process,” said the advocate.

Once the individual receives asylum, he or she qualifies for a wide variety of benefits, but not before leaving to struggle to survive.

Holguín, who once lived a comfortable life, now lives day to day. He said he and his brother still own the bus company in Ciudad Juárez, but after having to pay the extortion and splitting the remaining proceeds between his relatives, he receives just $125 per week.

“I am waiting to hear about my employment application,” Holguín said. “We get that little money from our bus company, but it is not enough to live on.”

Holguín is a rare case of a asylum applicant still reaping some form of income from his former career. The majority of asylum seekers have nothing.

Garcia said his and other organizations attempt to assist asylum seekers however they can with housing and food. He said Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been sending referrals on a steady basis the past few years for Annunciation House’s assistance.

There is a misperception, according to Garcia, that people from Mexico fleeing the violence and seeking asylum here are welcome and receive a variety of benefits.

“We help fill in the gaps for these people as best as we can,” Garcia said.

Holguín said despite the struggles he and his family have endured, the sacrifice has been worth it.

“We feel safe here,” he said. “We don’t have to hide. We can live peaceful.”