EL PASO — Three months ago, Lorena Acosta, a U.S. citizen and fifth-grade teacher, lost her husband, a Mexican national who had been brought to the U.S. at age 6, grew up in Fabens and then was deported in 2006. Officers forced their way into the family's home in the Valley of Juárez and shot him in the head three times, Acosta explained at a press conference Wednesday.
Her brother-in-law and nephew heard the incident, she said. They were detained and made to watch the burial.
“If they were ever asked about my husband, they were to say … ‘Los marcianos se lo llevaron' – the Martians took him,” she said.
Now, both men are in U.S. immigration detention facilities, seeking asylum.
Immigration attorney and activist Carlos Spector, who is working with Acosta, said that her recent tale of horror, along with the Mexican government's adoption last week of a resolution encouraging U.S. officials to grant asylum to Mexicans fleeing violence, shows that Mexico remains a lawless battleground. But others say more time is needed to see the effects of the aid package to reform the country's deeply corrupted criminal justice system.
Last week, Sen. Maria de Guadalupe Calderón Hinojosa, sister to former president Felipe Calderón, and a representative of the National Action Party, authored a resolution that asks Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs to urge U.S. officials to grant the asylum requests by Mexicans fleeing violence. The resolution was passed by the Mexican Congress, and Spector said it should spur American lawmakers to reconsider an aid package to Mexico.
“This is the first time that we know of that a Congress has said, ‘Facilitate the asylum claims of our citizens because we know we are incapable of defending them,’” Spector said. “This is contrary to Mexican nationalism, and I think it marks a new era in Mexican politics.”
The resolution specifically mentioned last year’s 700-mile bike trek by Carlos Gutierrez, a businessman from Chihuahua whose feet were cut off after he failed to meet the demands of extortionists tied to organized crime there. Using prosthetics, Gutierrez pedaled from El Paso to Austin to raise awareness about the violence in his home country.
Spector called the resolution a “game changer” because it should signal to U.S. officials that the 2008 Mérida Initiative — an estimated $1.5 billion aid package from the U.S. to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean to help governments there fight crime — isn’t working.
Provisions of the Mérida Initiative require that Mexico address alleged human rights violations there, and work toward judicial reform and improvements in law enforcement agencies.
“The U.S. government’s position is that things are getting better in Mexico,” he said. “That improvement, by and large, has been measured by the legislative proposals that they’ve taken, not whether [they have] been enforced or funded.”
Others are urging more patience with Mexico.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, has met with Mexican officials since the Mérida plan’s inception in 2007. From a U.S. perspective, he said, it’s not time to “wave the white flag,” especially as economic activity between the countries continues to grow.
“The first part [of Mérida] was to buy equipment. The training of the police, the judicial [reform], the prison systems and judges, that takes a lot longer,” he said. “There is $1.3 billion of trade a day, and with the Trans-Pacific Partnership we’re gong to modernize NAFTA. This is the time to keep moving and establish closer relationships with Mexico.”
Spector founded Mexicanos en Exilio in 2008, a group of exiles that includes more than 300 people from more than 100 families, mostly from Chihuahua, who banded together to draw attention to the impunity in Mexico.
On Wednesday, the group emphasized the growing toll of Mexican violence on U.S. citizens, whose family members have died, disappeared or been detained.
At the press conference, Spector also introduced Adriana Olivas Cervantes, whose husband and son were murdered in 2011 after they accidentally unearthed a mass grave in northern Chihuahua. Her four surviving children, all U.S. citizens, want to know who killed and injured their family members.
“They shot me seven times,” Olivas Cervantes said, her voice quivering.
Spector said the group will urge border lawmakers in both countries to meet and discuss the violence and U.S. aid. The group is working with the offices of Sen. Calderón Hinojosa and is reaching out to members of the U.S. Congressional Border Caucus to coordinate a field hearing.
The exiles will also continue to question lawmakers who insist Mexican asylum seekers are taking advantage of immigration laws. More than 90 percent of asylum claims are denied.
Despite the high rate of denials, skyrocketing asylum applications have raised concerns among GOP lawmakers. Last month, U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., at a hearing said that he has seen evidence that Mexicans are fabricating stories to get into the U.S.
“The House Judiciary Committee recently obtained an internal CBP memo that states many people claiming a ‘credible fear’ of persecution at our ports of entry have a direct or indirect association with drug trafficking and other illegal activity, such as human smuggling,” Goodlatte said. “Since there are intelligence gaps and loopholes in the system, the asylum process is often being abused by individuals who would otherwise be subjects of interest or subjects of criminal investigations.”
Spector said that conclusion was based on shaky evidence.
“The House committee has the testimony of one Border Patrol agent who is quoting three or four people; it’s like triple or quadruple hearsay,” he said.