Asylum Denied

Unlike refugees from other troubled countries, only a fraction of Mexicans seeking U.S. asylum are accepted – no matter how horrible their wounds or their stories.

As evening falls on southern Mexico, Sarah (not her real name) is shopping at a fruit market a block from her house. It is Friday, and her father, an investigator for the State Judicial Police, is home relaxing on his night off. Wearing blue jeans and an unbuttoned shirt, he is sweeping his front porch, waiting for his daughter to return and make dinner.

Sarah pays for the food just as a rush of black SUVs with no license plates speed past her along the road. She recognizes them instantly as they pull up to her home in a cloud of dust. Men in dark masks with AK-47s jump out and run toward Sarah's front door. Two of them are wearing police patches. One of them is her father's commander.

"They're taking your dad! They're taking your dad!" shouts a little girl in the store. Sarah tries to run, but her legs won't churn fast enough. Everything is in slow motion. She watches the gunmen drag her father out onto the street while he screams, "Show me the arrest warrant! Don't take me!" Sarah sees the men punch her mother and shoot her father in the leg, before hauling him into a truck and driving away.

Battles among cartels, their rivals and soldiers had led to almost 9,000 deaths by April 2009. Graves at San Rafael cemetery in Ciudad Juarez were dug out in anticipation of further deaths that year.
Rodrigo Abd/AP
Battles among cartels, their rivals and soldiers had led to almost 9,000 deaths by April 2009. Graves at San Rafael cemetery in Ciudad Juarez were dug out in anticipation of further deaths that year.
Eduardo Beckett, attorney for the El Paso nonprofit Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, is leading the legal battle to help innocent Mexicans caught up in the drug violence gain asylum and protection in the United States.
Diane Sierra
Eduardo Beckett, attorney for the El Paso nonprofit Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, is leading the legal battle to help innocent Mexicans caught up in the drug violence gain asylum and protection in the United States.
Mexican nationals running for their lives flee the violence in their hometowns and make for the border, where many find themselves turned away when they ask for asylum.
Diane Sierra
Mexican nationals running for their lives flee the violence in their hometowns and make for the border, where many find themselves turned away when they ask for asylum.

By the time Sarah gets home, all that is left of her father is the blood-stained pavement. He has not been seen since.

For Sarah and her family, years of intimidation and abuse by corrupt police officers have come to a head. Her father, a member of the anti-kidnapping unit, had discovered that his commander had taken a young girl hostage and that he and other cops were working for the cartels.

Sarah's father tried to bring his commander to justice, denouncing him to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, but there were no arrests and it just made him a target. Crooked policemen and cartel thugs had threatened to kill him, beaten Sarah and raped his wife, but he refused to work for drug traffickers.

After the kidnapping, Sarah and her mother rushed to the Public Prosecutor, but officials refused to take a statement. The women told nearby police agencies about the corruption and abduction, but no one would help. In desperation, Sarah went to the state capital to ask the military to intercede, but once again, she was turned away.

Sarah spent the next few nights in hiding at her uncle's home. She needed to get farther away. Sarah had family in Juarez, and while going to one of the most violent cities in the western hemisphere for sanctuary is like going to hell to cool off, her uncle put her on a plane.

When Sarah landed, she found out that her uncle had been murdered outside the airport for helping her escape.

In Juarez, Sarah met up with her mother and two younger brothers, who also had managed to get away, and for two months they hunkered down in an apartment.

"I was living in shock," says Sarah. "I was unable to understand that life as I knew it was over forever. I was so scared that I only stayed inside, living in my world of fear."

One afternoon, Sarah's mother received a phone call from a hometown friend. Her father's commander was threatening to kill Sarah's grandparents if they or any family member spoke to the fugitives. Even worse, said the friend, the commander and his troops knew where Sarah and her mother were hiding in Juarez.

"I felt like my world was collapsing," says Sarah. "I did not know where to turn or where to run."

The next morning, Sarah and her mother heard over the radio that the United States was offering protection. Sarah had never thought of living among los gringos; her life was in Mexico, where the 21-year-old was already halfway through law school. But now she was out of options. The corrupt police knew her location, and they were coming.

Later that day, December 30, 2008, Sarah, her mother and her two brothers walked up to the Paseo Del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso and turned themselves in, requesting asylum.

Sarah was separated from her family and placed in a detention center for more than a year while she waited for her day in immigration court. When a judge finally heard the case, her claim for asylum was denied and she was ordered back to Mexico. The evidence — that cops working for a drug cartel had beaten Sarah, killed her uncle, abducted her father and raped her mother because her father fought against their illegal activities – was moot. Sarah did not meet the U.S. government's standard for asylum.

If the line between the Mexican government and the drug world ever existed, it is less distinct now then ever. Cartels take over one village, town or state at a time, and buy police departments and armies along the way, fighting for control of precious drug routes and dollars. Since 2006, more than 28,000 people have been killed in the drug violence in Mexico. If someone speaks up, he is silenced, usually with a bullet made in the United States. Mexican citizens have nowhere to turn. Except north.

But unlike refugees from other war-torn nations who were living under the violent thumb of drug lords and found safety on American shores, the United States is accepting only a fraction of the number of Mexicans seeking asylum. In the midst of a politically unrecognized war, fueled by Americans' demand for illegal drugs and their ever growing arsenal of easily available weapons, the U.S government turns a deaf ear to Mexicans who are running for their lives.
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In a shabby office of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center minutes west of downtown El Paso, attorney Eduardo Beckett and his staff of unpaid interns, who hail from some of the best law schools in the United States, are scrambling to finish Sarah's appeal. The deadline is less than 48 hours away, and there is still a lot of work before they can file the paperwork with the Board of Immigration Appeals in Falls Church, Virginia.

Beckett, a young-looking man with a square jaw and a serious face, calmly orders his workers around as he proofreads. He believes the immigration court erred in several key areas, including that the judge minimized the gravity of the threats the police made against Sarah and her family. His cell phone rings every few minutes, but he doesn't answer. His pockets are filled with dozens of scraps of papers with people's names and phone numbers. Since January, Beckett has talked to more than 500 possible clients. They all want his help. In El Paso, he is the patron saint of asylum seekers.

Yet he seldom wins. Obtaining asylum, especially for Mexican nationals, is nearly impossible.

Under U.S. asylum law, applicants must show that their government is unable or unwilling to protect them and that they are in danger of persecution because they voiced unpopular political opinions or because they belong to a particular ethnic, religious, political or social group. The majority of people who are granted asylum are running away from civil wars, dictators or communist rule.

A major legal hurdle is that the law does not explicitly include victims of crime, such as drug- and cartel-related violence. A key to winning is showing that the persecutor was acting in an official governmental capacity.

There are generally three viable types of cases: police officers afraid of being murdered for denouncing other officers who take bribes from drug lords, journalists who write about corruption and drug traffickers, and middle-class businessmen scared they will be kidnapped for ransom money.

In Sarah's case, Beckett tried to show that Sarah should be eligible for asylum under the political opinion and social group provisions of the law because she sought help from the police and military and was denied, and because she was targeted for being the daughter of a policeman who publicly denounced corruption. However, the immigration judge ruled that while her story was credible, it did not rise to the level of persecution. The judge stated that the police commander had a personal vendetta against her and that he was a "rogue police officer," not acting on behalf of the state. The judge suggested that relocation within Mexico may be the remedy for Sarah.

The ruling is emblematic of many asylum decisions for Mexican nationals.

"These cases are so difficult," says Carlos Spector, an asylum attorney whose office is next door to Beckett's. "You cannot win."

According to statistics from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice, fewer than 2 percent of Mexican nationals who applied for asylum from 2005 to 2009 were successful. Typically, there have been 2,700 to 3,400 applications each year, and 30 to 70 were granted.

By comparison, immigration judges grant asylum to people from Colombia, a country with historic drug cartel violence and corruption, at a rate more than 20 times that of Mexicans. Colombian refugees are more welcome even though, as University of Texas at El Paso professor of anthropology Howard Campbell states: "Colombia has been able to keep drug trafficking and politics more separate than in Mexico and overall has a better functioning political system vis-à-vis cartels."

Asylum experts concede that because Mexico is a neighboring country with easier access to the United States, the numbers are skewed by frivolous claims. But Spector estimates that at least 70 percent of people who ask for asylum at points of entry have credible fear of persecution.

"When they come across the bridge, they're scared shitless," he says. "So something must have happened."

He and Beckett blame the difficulty of winning a case in court on several factors. For one, they say, U.S. immigration attorneys are far more aggressive battling asylum claims involving Mexicans than other nationalities.

"The government will put two attorneys on a case with a Mexican and just one for anybody else," says Spector. "And they appoint much more seasoned attorneys. There seems to be a real emphasis on them that, 'You don't lose these cases.'"

One of the most common reasons for denial that immigration judges invoke is that the asylum seeker can relocate within Mexico safely. But immigration attorneys point to mountains of evidence, in the form of news stories and U.S. government reports from the State Department and Drug Enforcement Administration, that the cartels are sophisticated billion-dollar criminal organizations that dominate local, and in many instances, national law enforcement. In other words, despite what U.S. judges might think, if drug bandits and their police henchmen want someone dead, there really is nowhere to hide. The key, then, is proving that they really want a person dead.

Campbell, who has testified at asylum hearings, believes immigration judges just aren't listening.

"It reminds me of the Mexican judicial system," he says. "That is, I gave these very plausible arguments and the prosecutor complimented me on my research and then the guy was deported. It just doesn't matter what you say. So it's not a matter of evidence, which is most troubling in many ways."

From 2006 through 2008, there was a steady increase in the number of Mexican nationals applying for asylum, rising from 2,793 to 3,459. But in 2009, the number of applications decreased 19 percent, to just more than 2,800.

Many argue that the decline is exactly what the U.S. government wants.

"There is an institutionalized policy of discouraging Mexican applicants by prolonged detention and serious resistance by government attorneys in immigration court," says Spector. "They don't deal with these cases like any others. They are trying to keep their finger in the border dike for as long as they can, and they want to send a message that if you go to the U.S. for asylum, you're going to get fucked. You are going to be detained and then denied. And it is clearly having an effect."

The unintended effect, however, may be the U.S. government's worst nightmare: additional illegal migration. The more often abused Mexican nationals are denied safe harbor, the more it makes sense for them to enter the country illegally, especially since remaining in Mexico may mean being murdered.

"Let's face it," says Campbell, "a lot of Mexicans have a naïve vision of American justice. Even though they hate La Migra, they think Mexico is a country of corruption, but walk across to the U.S. and everything works efficiently and fairly. And so they think, 'I'll do the right thing and apply for asylum.' And when they arrive, they're in for a rude awakening."
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Judges defend the low number of successful asylum applications from Mexicans by saying the specifics of asylum law make it difficult for them to grant claims. Just as immigration attorneys struggle with the requirement that asylum seekers must fit into one of the protected social groups, they say, so do judges.

"It's trying to fit people into those categories that makes Mexican asylum cases so much tougher," says Dana Leigh Marks, the San Francisco-based president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

No matter how much a judge might sympathize with an asylum-seeker's plight, she says, a very strict reading of the law wouldn't offer much cover to Mexicans fleeing drug violence. There's no handbook telling judges that police, informants or journalists fleeing Mexican drug violence constitute a "social group" under the law — it's up to each judge to decide.

As a former defense attorney, Marks is an anomaly among the country's 237 immigration judges. Most of her colleagues started out as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutors. Asylum attorney Carlos Spector believes this is a major reason why judges handle Mexican asylum cases so severely. In El Paso, for instance, Spector says three out of the four immigration judges are former federal prosecutors.

However, Marks says, "It's case by case — it's just not something that lends itself to mathematical certainty."

That flexibility can result in some incredible discrepancies in asylum decisions, as "Refugee Roulette," a 2007 study in the Stanford Law Review, made clear.

Three law professors studying four years of government data found that judges in the same district, deciding asylum cases from the same country, could turn up vastly different results: a judge in Los Angeles granted asylum to 9 percent of the Chinese applicants who came before him, while a colleague granted asylum to 81 percent of his Chinese applicants. Two judges in Miami differed on decisions regarding Colombian applicants, 5 percent for one, 88 percent for another.

"In the world of asylum adjudication," the authors write, "there is remarkable variation in decision making from one official to the next, from one office to the next, from one region to the next." It's all luck of the draw, and in one-witness cases without any physical evidence — as most asylum decisions are — much depends on a judge's opinion of a country's political climate, and how he reads the latest State Department memos.

That study also examined judges' personal backgrounds, and found that ones who'd worked for legal aid groups or in private practice were more generous with asylum seekers than those who'd begun as government prosecutors. Someone seeking asylum from Mexico is less likely to be shipped back home if he happens to land a more compassionate judge.

While most immigration judges in Texas denied about 75 percent of the claims they heard from 2001 to 2006 (from all countries), according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, Houston judge Robert Brown granted asylum 40 percent of the time. William Abbott, one of El Paso's four immigration judges, was actually one of the most lenient in the country, granting asylum to 57 percent of the applicants who came before him. Dallas' Deitrich Sims, on the other hand, has built a reputation as an asylum hard-ass, denying 85 percent of the claims he heard.

Asylum cases are some of the toughest an immigration judge can pull, with so much to sort through on the way to determining if an applicant's story, often told through a translator, is true and includes "credible fear."

Even when they get the facts straight, Marks says, judges forced to work such heavy caseloads may not have the time to give asylum-seekers the impression they've gotten a fair shake — which, she says, compounds the problem by increasing the burden on appeals courts.

"If you came to me with your situation, I could analyze it and in two minutes know, 'Oh, he's not going to qualify,'" Marks says. If, she says, "you have 500 things that you want to tell me that you think are going to be relevant, unless I listen to at least 400 of them, you don't think I've really heard your case. ...Even though I may be absolutely right, you're going to say, 'Oh that judge wasn't listening to me. I had all these other things I want to tell her.' So you're going to take an appeal."

Though so many complex questions are left to the judge's discretion, the law says cases must be decided within 180 days after a claim is filed. Marks says immigration judges have been incredibly overworked in the last few years, as money poured into the U.S. Border Patrol and ICE hasn't been matched by an investment in extra judges to handle the resulting caseload.

Associate Deputy Attorney General Juan Osuna told Congress in June that the more than 275,000 cases before the immigration courts are "the largest number the system has ever received." In 2009 alone, 237 judges decided more than 390,000 cases, and Osuna said he expects even more this year. To help ease the burden, the DOJ hopes to hire 47 more immigration judges by the end of this year.

When deportation is as good as a death sentence, the stakes don't get any higher. But the courtrooms where an asylum-seeker makes his case are stripped down, with no bailiff or court reporter. Judges operate their own digital recorders, if they're lucky enough to have them. Now more than ever since her appointment in 1987, Marks says, "Immigration judges are doing death penalty cases in traffic court settings."

Immigration attorneys believe judges are exhausted, and tired of trying to be the nice guy.

"It's called 'compassion fatigue,'" says attorney Carlos Spector. "After a while, they say, 'So what? How is your case different? We don't want to hear about horrible country conditions, we want to hear about you and who is doing this to you.' And they are very tough on what evidence gets in."

Working through their heavy caseloads, judges hear all manner of horrors each and every day. Kidnappings and threats from gangs of gunmen take on the regularity of someone caught speeding through a school zone.

"Immigration judges demonstrate a higher level of on-the-job stress and burnout than prison wardens or busy hospital doctors," Marks says, quoting a 2009 study from the University of California, San Francisco. Along with the daily horror stories judges hear from refugees and asylum applicants, "It takes its toll just on a personal level; they don't have the time to calmly deliberate over a decision or do the research that is needed," Marks says. "If you don't have that opportunity, then it isn't done right."

Says El Paso attorney Elvia Garcia, "Asylum is a human issue. We need to focus on what the United States actually stands for. Judges say their hands are tied, but I think they are afraid of political backlash."

Immigration judges work under the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which falls under the DOJ and the attorney general. This became well known when Monica Good­ling, once an aide to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, told Congress that she'd screened Bush-era judge appointees for political beliefs ahead of time, looking for judges who would shoot down asylum applications.

Speaking for the immigration judges' association before Congress in June, Marks joined the American Bar Association in recommending that immigration judges get a special status "to guarantee decisional independence and insulation from retaliation" — a freedom judges today don't necessarily enjoy, given their place as employees of the Department of Justice who serve at the pleasure of the U.S. attorney general.
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Statistically, Mexicans seeking asylum are almost certainly doomed. However, some applicants do prevail. A case originating in Brownsville offers a glimpse into the possible future of asylum law.

Jim, who did not want his name used for fear of reprisal, was a mechanic and a musician in Matamoros, Mexico, just on the other side of the Rio Grande. He had polio and lived at home with his mother. Their longtime neighbor was a notorious crime boss. One day, he asked Jim to store drugs and guns at their house, but Jim refused.

It didn't take long for the local police to show up on behalf of the drug lord, and, after giving Jim a few warnings, a gang of drug traffickers and policemen broke into his home one night and kidnapped him at gunpoint.

They drove Jim to an open field and starting beating him with their fists. One man hammered Jim with a two-foot long metal pipe. Later that night, the men took Jim to the parking lot of the police station, where they forced him to call his family and demand $20,000 in ransom money. Then they handcuffed Jim and beat him some more before driving him home. He had 24 hours to come up with the cash or be killed.

For three days, Jim hid in the body shop where he worked, sleeping in a broken down van. When the officers finally showed up at the shop, he ran to a family member's home, and was told the corrupt policemen already had visited. That afternoon, Jim's son drove his father to the border patrol station in Brownsville, where Jim asked for protection, saying he was "desperate to avoid being murdered by two Mexican federal policemen."

For months, Jim was detained inside the Port Isabel Detention Center, 12 miles north of Brownsville. When an immigration judge finally heard the case, it was denied. The judge decided Jim's story was not credible and that the policemen were not acting as agents of the state.

Jim's attorney, Henry Cruz, decided to appeal, but this time he would take a new approach. Instead of applying for traditional asylum, he would appeal under the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

The difference, says Cruz, is that under the convention, the applicant only has to show that he will likely be tortured by the police or with the police's consent, and not that he belongs to a protected social group or is being persecuted for a particular political opinion.

On appeal, the immigration board reversed the lower court's decision and found that Jim's story was credible. The board also found that while the abuse was committed by the Matamoros police, it was perpetrated by the drug lord. The issue of relocation was moot, as Jim's polio and care requirements made moving away from family nearly impossible.

In the end, Jim won.

"With Convention Against Torture cases," says Cruz, who now practices law in Seattle, "the issue is, what does 'acting in an official capacity' mean? Are rogue police officers acting in official capacity? Former U.S. Attorney John Ashcroft used to say, 'No.' Well, he's completely wrong, and if you look at civil rights case law, [police] don't have to be on duty or in uniform as long as they show they have authority. And in this case, they had handcuffs, weapons, and portrayed themselves as officers. So even if they were doing it outside of their office, you can't erase the fact that they are police agents and use their tools for drug traffickers. And it doesn't have to be an official policy of the police department to help drug traffickers, either."

Or, as Elvia Garcia, an attorney in El Paso puts it, "It's like the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s. Police officers would stop people on the road and then turn them over to the KKK. The same thing is happening in Mexico with impunity."

Cruz concedes that he and Jim got lucky with a sympathetic judge out of Las Vegas, and that which judge you draw severely affects an asylum applicant's chances. However, he believes more asylum cases can be won by applying the anti-torture convention.

"Theoretically it could work for anybody," says Cruz, "and it should be as simple as that. Although it never is. The hurdle is showing that the person will likely be found and tortured, so you need to have a good set of facts. However, the simple fact is that there is an increase of drug violence recently and the conditions are changing drastically, so that helps these cases. There will be a lot more losses before successes, but under the law, many more of these cases should be getting asylum than are."
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At the end of the day, the reason asylum for Mexicans is so tough may come down to politics.

The U.S. government has earmarked more than $1 billion to help Mexican President Felipe Calderon's government battle its country's drug problem. Turning around and granting asylum to someone fleeing Mexico's federal police amounts to an admission that Congress has been bankrolling criminals.

Instead, whether through direct pressure, or by controlling the message that reaches immigration judges who, after all, still aren't independent, the United States has kept its admission rates low, despite all the evidence that Mexico is saturated with corruption.

Calderon himself has been increasingly frank about the dire situation his government faces. Earlier this month at a national security conference in Mexico City, Calderon said that the cartels have expanded their operations into "an attempt to replace the state" — a bloody endeavor Mexico's national intelligence service says has killed 28,000 people since Calderon took office.

"The president even admitted they're losing the drug war; it couldn't be any more black and white," says Campbell. "The more aggressively the Unites States tries to stop drug trafficking and immigration, the more it creates pressure in Mexico.

"The drugs were always being trafficked, but it didn't produce so much violence because it was channeled through very specific relationships that kept a lid on things," Campbell says. "It's Calderon's attempt to break up those old relationships, with direct U.S. support, that's provoked this four-year surge in violence and torn Mexican institutions apart. Mexico is like Iraq and Afghanistan, in that hard-line policy has produced precisely what they're trying to stop. The problems get worse because of our attempts to fix it."

Earlier this month in Juarez, hundreds of local police rioted against four commanders they accused of taking part in cartel-related kidnappings and executions. Federal police intervened, hauling the commanders down to Mexico City.

The U.S.-funded Merida Initiative, a broad, multi-year plan to support the war on drug-runners in Mexico (and a handful of other Latin American nations) with helicopters, SUVs, boats, drug treatment and public education campaigns, has swelled to $1.6 billion since its Bush-era roots in 2008. In Mexico, that money — $400 million in 2008 and $300 million in 2009, with a $450 million request by Congress for 2010 — is going to the 80,000 troops and federal police Calderon has dispatched to fight the cartels.

In a Merida Initiative fact sheet published in June 2009, the State Department stressed that the project is not about fixing broken Mexican institutions from the outside, or meddling in another country's affairs: "The Merida Initiative is a partnership, and the United States respects its individual partners' sovereign decisions and their different legal authorities." As another department memo on the program puts it, "They are doing their part; we must do ours."

Especially true, given that it's the demand for drugs in the United States and our ready supply of weapons headed back across the border that keep the violence burning so hot. Lumping Mexico in with Cuba, Haiti, and other nations with high asylum acceptance rates, then, would be a slap in the face to our closest drug-war ally and a tacit acknowledgment that our efforts are failing, too.

"Recognition by the U.S. government of persecution by the Mexican military and the state goes counter to the Merida Plan, because we're funding the biggest persecutor, the military," Spector says. "And there's lots of evidence of their involvement in the drug trade. The corruption is so endemic, and the U.S does everything to deny it."

Complaints to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission jumped six-fold from 2006 to 2008. Human Rights Watch, citing kidnappings, rapes and murders that have all gone unpunished — or even tried in civil courts, as required by the Merida Initiative — has called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to recognize Mexico's poor human rights record.

But official State Department memos and Congressional testimony, the documents immigration judges rely on most for background in asylum cases, paint a very different picture. In an update to Congress on the Merida Initiative last May, Deputy Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson said, "The U.S.-Mexican bilateral relationship has never been stronger than it is right now." While acknowledging the "unprecedented levels of violence in Mexico," Jacobson's statement avoided mentioning abuse by federal police.

For Steve Spurgin, a Marfa defense attorney and a former West Texas county prosecutor who represents Mexican asylum applicants, the lack of security in Mexico's institutions couldn't be clearer. "There's a complete breakdown in the Republic of Mexico, a complete breakdown of law enforcement. It's about as close to anarchy as I think you can be," Spurgin says. "Our government refuses to acknowledge these problems. If they did, they'd realize that the millions of millions of dollars we're giving the government is increasing the violence."

Spurgin's clients aren't usually journalists or police, but business owners who run after being shaken down and threatened by the cartels. He recalls one client who was detained along the border after fleeing Juarez, before he was able to interview with an asylum officer and establish he had credible fear. The day he was released on bond, his house in Juarez was burned to the ground.

"These folks aren't coming to the U.S. to work. These folks are coming to the U.S. to escape," Spurgin says. "I suspect these folks would want to go back home if they could do so safely."

That distinction is easily lost when any kind of immigration across our southern border is such an explosive issue. "Given the controversy that currently exists over Arizona, and the absence of the federal government to really take charge of immigration policy," Spurgin says, "I'm not optimistic that the [asylum] law is going to change."

Opening the floodgates to a humanitarian onslaught is the last thing President Obama needs while he's trying to stand tough against Rick Perry and other Republicans barking at him to "secure the border" once and for all.

Mexican officials say they expect the violence to continue to escalate, and Spector agrees that it is only a matter of time until things get even worse.

"The U.S. government knows what is happening in Mexico and in the immigration courts, and what is coming down the line," he says.

A visible refugee crisis along the border — a wave of legal, documented Mexicans running for their lives — would shatter the government's illusion that, together with Calderon, the United States is keeping the violence under control or limited to infighting among drug-runners.

"It's very clear they don't want to establish a precedent of granting asylum to a lot of people, because it'll create a flood," Campbell says. "The fact is, these cases are being lost, even though they have very strong cases."

Spurgin doesn't expect major change will come from risk-averse immigration judges—nor is he holding his breath for Congress to help accommodate Mexican drug-war refugees. Asylum law may not, in fact, be the ideal answer.

But, Spurgin says, "It's the only option we have."

It is certainly the only option for Sarah. When an immigration judge initially denied her asylum claim, her first reaction was to laugh.

"It was ridiculous," she says. "Even despite having enormous amounts of proof before their eyes, they still dared to deny it. I could not believe it. Then I became angry, angry that they turned their back on me, because if I go home I will die for certain."

Sarah is in hiding somewhere outside of Texas, but hasn't lost hope. She believes she will win her appeal, and that she will one day see her father alive. Two years after the kidnapping, Sarah still wakes up every morning and searches the Web, looking for even the smallest news story mentioning her father. She feels more secure living in the United States, but says she will never feel completely at ease.

"Even when I see a U.S. policeman, I tremble," she says. "I am always thinking about what happened to my dad and my family. I am always afraid they will find me in the U.S. and kill me."

Sarah says she believes in the United States and its justice system, and hopes the country will legally open its doors to her. She is not a criminal and only wants a peaceful place to live. Sarah says she will "fight and work for her safety and tranquility," for as long as it takes, and will appeal her case to the U.S. Supreme Court, if possible. No matter what, she will not — cannot — return to Mexico.

"I will not hesitate to stay here illegally," she says. "I would rather do that than ever go to Mexico again, even if it means illegal re-entry. It's not that I want to live in the U.S. I never did. But I cannot go back. I do not want to die."

chris.vogel@houstonpress.com

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