The drug-related violence plaguing Mexico has led to a surge in asylum requests from Mexicans seeking safe haven in the United States.
The number of asylum petitions from Mexican citizens increased from 1,331 in 2005 to 2,231 last year. While most are denied because the U.S. does not recognize fear of violence as grounds for automatic admission, the approval rate has grown during that time from 5 percent to 13 percent.
At least 68 Mexican asylum cases have been received since October 2007 in Denver's Immigration Court — more than from any other country — with more than 3,749 cases in courts nationwide, federal records show.
Lawyers who represent asylum-seekers point to the approximately 6,000 people killed over the past year in Mexican drug wars and worry that a failure to grant more requests will lead to more deaths.
"The way our government is interpreting the law will cause people to die," said Jeff Joseph, head of a Denver immigration law firm.
Among Joseph's clients is a former Mexican police officer named Jesus, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of repercussions against his family and friends still in Mexico.
Three days after drug-cartel gunmen killed his police partner, Jesus resigned from the force. He fled northern Mexico to Denver with his family.
They entered the United States legally as tourists. Now Jesus is seeking political asylum.
"If I go back, I'd be waiting for death," Jesus said.
But even cases in which Mexico's government and police are unable to protect citizens "generally (do) not rise to the level needed" for asylum, said Jedidah Hussey, deputy chief of the asylum division at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Human-rights advocates are challenging the U.S. position that violence or threats of violence by nongovernmental entities such as drug cartels do not entitle a refugee to asylum.
"Asylum jurisprudence is replete with examples of cases in which people fleeing their home countries based on persecution by a nongovernment actor have received protection," said Regina Germain, the Denver-based author of a textbook on asylum and legal director of the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center, a nonprofit human-rights group.
Germain cited cases in which the United States has granted asylum to Colombians fleeing FARC rebels, Filipinos fleeing the New People's Army, El Salvadorans fleeing paramilitary death squads and Togolese women fleeing genital mutilation.
The United Nations "recognizes that individuals are entitled to refugee status based on persecution by non-state actors," she said.
Historically, rapidly changing governments and dictatorships, such as the former one in Iraq, were more likely to provoke asylum petitions, but federal immigration judges in Denver and elsewhere now are poised to hear details of alleged persecution in Mexico.
Retired federal immigration Judge Bruce Einhorn, now a candidate to be chief immigration judge, said he believes judges will make compassionate decisions as cases from Mexico move through the system. Mexican police officers and people who witnessed crimes "fall within the categories that are protected" under U.S. asylum law, Einhorn said.
"As our world evolves, as persecution evolves, it's appropriate to allow the law to be applied to those who are persecuted," he said.
Asylum protection traditionally is granted to refugees, regardless of their country of origin, who can prove persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, politics, nationality or membership in a particular social group. Those seeking asylum can apply at U.S. ports of entry — records show 312 Mexicans did so last year, up from 50 in 2002 — and at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices nationwide.
Cartel violence growing
U.S. officials generally grant fewer than 10,000 requests a year — a tiny portion of total immigration — usually the result of government persecution. Those granted asylum can remain in the U.S. and eventually become legal permanent residents.
On Feb. 20, the U.S. State Department issued an alert warning that Mexico's cartels "are engaged in an increasingly violent conflict" resulting in "violent attacks in cities across the country."
Mexican consular officials in Denver, acknowledging that people are fleeing for safety, said there's no position on how asylum requests should be handled.
Mexicans receiving threats "should ask for protection from the Mexican government. That should be their first option," legal affairs consul Jorge Gonzalez-Mayagoitia said.
But Jesus had little faith in that suggestion. He and others say rival cartels have infiltrated Mexico's police departments and that officers loyal to cartels can't be trusted. Shortly after he and his family left Mexico, a stranger approached his mother-in-law asking where they were.
Working with a lawyer, he is amassing documents including photos of his dead partner's bullet-riddled truck. He yearns to resume what had been a promising law-enforcement career.
If U.S. authorities wanted to hire him to help combat cartel violence, he'd be interested, Jesus said.
"If I was a seller of pastries, or a mechanic, I might return," he said. "But I worked as a police officer and they know me."