Carlos Gutierrez, a native of Chihuahua, Mexico, never envisioned coming to the U.S. to seek a better life, the way millions of his countrymen have done for decades. The successful businessman was doing quite well for himself until just a few years ago.
That was when criminals chopped off his legs for failure to pay their monthly $10,000 extortion demands, forcing the 35-year-old to flee and seek asylum in the United States in 2011. His case was administratively closed — put on hold because immigration officers deemed his removal a low priority — and he was granted a work permit.
But despite having safe harbor in the U.S. for the time being, Gutierrez isn't keeping a low profile. He's waging a public battle to fight what he perceives to be an anti-immigrant bias against legitimate asylum claims. He wants to show Americans that Mexicans seeking exile across the border aren’t gaming the system, and he’s raising awareness via a hobby that is far more challenging for him than for others.
Gutierrez leaves El Paso later this month on a bike trek called "Pedaling for Justice." Gutierrez, who has prosthetic legs, will cover more than 670 miles of Texas roadways by bicycle en route to his final destination, the Texas Capitol.
“We’re not delinquents. We’re here because we were expelled from our country,” Gutierrez said from the office of his El Paso-based attorney, Carlos Spector. Spector is the founder of Mexicanos en Exilio, or Mexicans in Exile, a nonprofit group created to help endangered Mexicans move safely to the U.S.
Gutierrez and his fellow riders will travel to Marfa, Del Rio, San Antonio and San Marcos, among other stops, picking up supporters along the way before arriving in Austin on Nov. 9. Spector said the cyclists are seeking publicity for two reasons: to protest the abuse of the political asylum process as it applies to Mexicans and to denounce the violations of human rights in Mexico.
“We’re talking about the implementation of basic justice,” Spector said. When victims of crimes ask for help, their pleas go unanswered in Mexico, he said. That only further fuels the drug cartel battles that have so far left more than 100,000 people dead.
“That’s the impunity that allows this situation: exaggerated and tragic violence in Mexico,” he said.
Even though Gutierrez is in the country legally and his case is closed for now, it could be reopened by the U.S. government. If that happened, he would have to prove before an immigration court that he should be granted asylum based on a fear for his life.
Of his client's in-limbo status, Spector said, “It puts him in the ballpark; it’s not a denial or a grant."
That Gutierrez made it this far, Spector said, is the fact that warrants attention. Statistically speaking, Mexicans run a greater chance of being denied asylum than other foreign nationals. In 2012, only 126 out of 9,206 Mexicans seeking asylum in immigration courts were granted it, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice.
That's despite an upward trend in approvals for asylum cases overall. According to TRAC data, about 45 percent of cases were denied in 2012, compared with about two-thirds just 10 years ago.
Seeking asylum on the basis of fearing for one's life in Mexico doesn’t usually meet the general standards, Spector said. Applicants must prove they have a credible fear of death or torture based on race or ethnicity, religion or participation in a political group.
Relations between the two countries also come in to play. Granting more asylum claims would be a de facto admission that Mexico is a troubled country. Critics say that’s not necessarily a message the U.S. government wants to send to a key trading partner and staunch ally.
There have been minor inroads, Spector concedes; some Mexican journalists and activists have been granted the status. But a recent surge in applicants from Mexico has fueled concerns by some federal lawmakers that the system is being gamed, creating a tense atmosphere for immigration attorneys.
U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asked the Department of Homeland Security in August to review “loopholes” in asylum law that he said promote illegal migration.
Goodlatte said that according to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, credible fear claims among undocumented immigrants apprehended at the border have increased from about 5,200 in 2009 to 23,400 in the first nine months of 2013.
“I am concerned that credible fear claims are being exploited by illegal immigrants in order to enter and remain in the United States,” Goodlatte wrote in August. After presenting a credible fear claim to immigration officials, Goodlatte said, it is the petitioner’s duty to prove the claim in court.
“However, once these aliens receive court dates, they often fail to appear for immigration court proceedings and end up disappearing into the United States,” Goodlatte said. He added that some critics believe that true Mexican asylum cases are “highly unusual and often are an orchestrated sham.”
A call to Goodlatte’s offices on Wednesday seeking an update on the chairman’s request to DHS was not immediately returned.
Spector said the best vehicle to address the asylum process — comprehensive immigration reform in Congress — is likely dead this year, though advocates initially thought they had their best shot yet.
Until then, Gutierrez said he and the other members of Mexicanos en Exilio are trying to change the public perception. They are fleeing violence, not trying to spread it.
"The organized crime that people are talking about in Washington, that is the reason we’re here," he said.