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Gimme Shelter

Despite the drug war raging on the other side of the border, the number of Mexican nationals applying for asylum in the United States is declining. Approvals are down even further.

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Despite fears that Texas would open its doors to thousands of Mexicans escaping violence at home and seeking a safe haven here, government data shows that the number of asylum-seekers from Mexico has actually decreased.

The number of asylum applications from Mexican nationals to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — a division of the Department of Homeland Security that governs lawful migration into the United States — fell by 28 percent in 2009, to 1,778 from 2,456 the previous year. Through the second quarter of 2010, the agency had received just 233 applications. Most are denied, federal officials said, though the USCIS did not immediately provide approval statistics on Thursday. In fact, Mexico does not even make the top 10 list of countries whose citizens are granted asylum. China, Ethiopia and Haiti hold the top three spots.

One explanation could be the grit of Mexicans in border towns who, though forced to live their lives differently than they did just a few years ago, remain determined to ride out the current crime wave. Others believe, however, that applications have dropped because the U.S. laws governing refugee and asylum designations are too stringent. According to the U.S. government code, those seeking refuge must face persecution in their home country due to their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Run-of-the-mill fear of murderous drug lords or corrupt Mexican government and military officials often don’t make the cut, according to federal officials and specialists in immigration law.

“I find that [asylum seekers] are more than likely not able to establish an asylum claim under the laws of the United States. An [immigration] judge will review a case, but for the most part, they rubber stamp it” with a denial, says Ed Beckett, the managing attorney at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso. Since January, Beckett’s office has seen more than 500 people applying for asylum from Juárez — which has witnessed more than 3,600 murders since the beginning of 2009. Most have been denied.

The statistics and details about the process were provided on a conference call that USCIS and U.S. State Department officials held with reporters on Thursday in anticipation of World Refugee Day later this month.

An official with the USCIS asylum division, speaking on background, said that even the minority of Mexican asylum requests approved do not necessarily come from border towns with the most violence; many come from the interior of the country. There are two ways to apply, the official explained: the “affirmative” process and the “defensive.” The affirmative process involves an applicant already in the United States who applies and then is granted an interview with a USCIS asylum officer, who makes the ultimate determination. The defensive process involves being detained, either at a port of entry or in the interior, and being subject to expedited removal from the U.S. under current immigration law. The detainee can seek asylum and plead his or her case before an immigration judge before they are deported.

Either way, the guidelines for granting asylum are restrictive, Beckett says. Despite coming from a country many elected officials say is on the brink of — or already mired in — a civil war between the government and drug lords, that mere assertion carries little weight.

“[The judges] issue an order basically saying, ‘You have no "negative credible fear." We will now turn you back to the Department of Homeland Security or the Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation.’ And so those people don’t even make it to first base,” Beckett says.

Only a small number of detainees in immigration detention seek a judicial opinion, and even fewer are granted asylum, the USCIS official said. For applicants in detention, there is a slight possibility for parole or release while they await their asylum hearing, Beckett says — especially if they're female and have family in the U.S.

The government, the official said, has also loosened its reigns and will now consider parole — and often grant it — if the detainee was found to have a credible fear of persecution.

But Beckett also points to what he sees as an irony in the entire screening process. He says he “can’t believe” that people who show up stabbed, maimed or even shot are denied — especially when they claim the notoriously corrupt Mexican military might have been the culprits. Several conservative opponents of amnesty for illegal immigration in the U.S. also argue that the Mexican government is corrupt and should be held accountable. It’s because of that endemic corruption, Beckett says, that more asylum-seeking Mexicans should be given due consideration.

The U.S. government’s stance on Mexican corruption involves inherent contradictions, Beckett notes. Even as the U.S. State Department puts out reports saying that “security forces in Mexico are known to work with drug traffickers and criminal organizations,” the U.S. government continues to provide support to the Mexican military and police through the Merida Initiative, he says. And yet when Mexicans seeks asylum, claiming fear of their corrupt government, he says, U.S. judges respond, “We don’t buy it. We think the Mexican government is working great.”

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