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Activist Immigrants Hurt Their Cause, Lawyer Says

A top immigration lawyer says activist immigrants like the DREAM 9 in Arizona betray the cause they champion and can dilute important cases like that of Carlos Gutierrez, who sought asylum in the U.S. after criminal gangs cut his legs off.

Carlos Gutierrez, who lives in exile in Texas, embarks on the first segment of his "Pedaling for Justice" bike trek that ends in Austin next month.

EL PASO — Activist immigrants who were deported or returned to Mexico of their own accord and then returned to U.S. ports of entry seeking asylum as a means of legal entry are hurting the cases of asylum-seekers with legitimate claims of fear, said a top immigration lawyer along the border.

Carlos Spector, who represents more than 100 Mexican families seeking asylum, said Monday that the tactics of groups like the DREAM 9 in Arizona or the DREAM 34 in Texas betray the cause of comprehensive immigration reform that they seek to champion.

“Both groups did not consult the work of the local community that has 25 years of experience working on these issues,” said Spector, who is also the co-founder of Mexicanos en Exilio, or Mexicans in Exile, a nonprofit outfit that helps endangered Mexicans move safely to the U.S. “They played into the right wing’s argument and narrative that Mexicans are using the asylum process frivolously just to enter the country.”

Because of that, Spector labeled such activists “the Tea Party of the immigration movement.”

Groups who support such DREAMer groups, however, say they are serving a noble cause. They say they are bringing attention to youths who were deported to Mexico but are just as deserving as other immigrants seeking refuge in the U.S.

To receive asylum, petitioners must show they have a valid fear of persecution or death due to a number of factors, including religion, ethnicity, participation in a political group or sexual orientation.

Spector, who just weeks ago declined to openly criticize the groups, spoke Monday about a case he said proves his argument against the activists. That morning, Carlos Gutierrez, a Mexican businessman from Chihuahua whose feet were cut off by criminal gangs, left West Texas for his “Pedaling for Justice” effort, a 700-mile bicycle trek through the state to focus attention on the violence in Mexico and its root causes.

Gutierrez, who uses prosthetic legs, sought asylum in 2011 after the criminals punished him for not paying their monthly $10,000 extortion demand.

It’s cases like his, Spector said, that get diluted by activist movements.

“Carlos’ feet are cut off. Those are the real cases we are dealing with, and what they are doing is they are diminishing the importance of that,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons we are going public with this now.”

Spector, who supports comprehensive immigration reform, said the activists probably have good intentions and “represent the desperation of people that want to get together with their families.” But the tactics, he said, are hurting the overall cause, especially because judges usually deny most asylum cases sought by Mexicans.

Gutierrez, who is reluctant to get into the fray, acknowledges the situations are different.

“They got here as kids, and maybe they didn’t want to be here but came with their parents,” he said. “What brought us here was the violence that we faced, those circumstances.”

Supporters of the immigrant activists say the activists are fighting for people who have been treated unfairly. The Texas Undocumented Youth Alliance is among those throwing their weight behind the effort. On its website is the story of Edgar, who was deported after graduating from an American high school because of a “mild scuffle.”

“Despite this isolated incident, which could have happened to anyone, Edgar was a well-rounded student who participated in science fair, church choir, marching band, and athletics,” the site says. “It is clear to everyone that he is a good kid who simply got caught up in the school-to-deportation pipeline. In Mexico, he was sent to live with his grandmother who suffered an embolism and is now paralyzed.”

Calls to the Undocumented Youth Alliance for comment on Spector’s statements were not returned. Others supportive groups also make the argument that after living in the United States for so long and then being deported, former undocumented immigrants are at risk in Mexico because kidnappers and extortionists believe they saved up money while in America or have resources to get money the criminals want.

Judge Dana Leigh Marks, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said during a workshop last week in Cambridge, Mass., that the issue has divided immigration attorneys. But, she added, lawyers have a job to do.

“An able defense attorney is going to do whatever they possibly can to try and get their client a benefit. That includes trying to advance and change the immigration laws,” she said. “Those are very dicey and difficult questions that divide the immigration community. What do you do and what is your individual responsibility as a lawyer to your individual client?”

The situation is not lost on Washington, where U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, recently asked the Department of Homeland Security to review why Mexican asylum claims have skyrocketed since 2009. That year, about 5,200 undocumented immigrants apprehended at the border made credible fear claims, compared with 23,400 in the first nine months of 2013.  

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