EL PASO — Daniel Caudillo, an immigration lawyer from El Paso, listened stunned to the story of a father whose 12-year-old daughter was allegedly kidnapped by Mexican federal police agents. The family had arrived at his office with the thought of applying for asylum for the girl.
“They ran out of options and someone told them to consider asylum,” Caudillo said. “I told them how tough it is going through an asylum process, but they should decide by themselves.”
Last year, a total of 147 asylum petitions were received by immigration courts in the El Paso area, according to statistics released by the U.S. Executive Office for Immigration Review, but just two cases were approved.
Immigration lawyers and experts agree that since the media started reporting asylum requests, many victims of violence have seen this immigration process as a viable option to flee México.
Iliana Holguin, director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso, a non-profit organization that provides low cost legal services to immigrants, said the number of calls regarding asylum has risen as never before.
“There is a misconception that asylum is easily granted,” said Holguin. “We have to put together workshops to inform people about what is asylum, its consequences and how difficult the process is.”
In 2010, only two asylum cases were granted in El Paso, while five years ago, in 2006, the two immigration courts located in the city approved a total of 67 asylum cases. One of the cases approved was for journalist Jorge Luis Aguirre, editor of LaPolaka.com, an online news publication.
Because of the media attention that cases like Aguirre’s have received, Mexican asylum seekers in the U.S. have been stereotyped as scared journalists escaping from the violence in Juárez and other cities in México. The truth is that fear has affected many other sectors of the society, said immigration lawyers in El Paso.
“I do see an increase in calls and questions on asylum – not only from police officers or journalists, but from normal people, those who had businesses in Juárez and are being threatened or already extorted,” said Gabriel Jimenez, an immigration lawyer.
Jimenez, who practices in East El Paso, said that working on asylum cases is one of the most exhausting processes a lawyer can go through. He said that, nowadays, Mexican asylum cases are impossible to win.
“I usually hesitate on taking any asylum cases. Mexican asylum cases are different,” Jimenez said. “Those are cases that are not going to be granted, I do not feel good by accepting their money and wasting my time for a case that doesn’t have legal merit.”
When lawyers do assist Mexican asylum seekers in court, they encounter more obstacles than when they work with other nationalities. They say it is harder to prove their clients are being persecuted, when they do not fall into a specific risk group as required by federal asylum law.
“Until now, no court is going to agree that this specific group of people is suffering, they won’t accept (the argument) in front of an asylum seeker ‘your group is targeted by the violence in Juárez,’” said Caudillo.
The hardships of waiting for asylum
Most asylum petitioners were not aware of the process and the consequences they would face after seeking asylum.
Ruben Acosta is the oldest son of a police officer who was based in a small town in the state of Chihuahua. His father’s life was threatened when he refused to cooperate with drug dealers. After the entire family was intimidated in their house, Acosta and his family hid for a couple of days in Ciudad Juárez before showing up at the border seeking protection from the U.S. government.
When Acosta and his family went to the Santa Fe International bridge at the Ciudad Juárez–El Paso border crossing in 2008 asking for asylum, he never imagined that he would become one of the 15,466 individuals detained in an ICE detention facility that year.
Acosta was separated from his family, and he spent more than two years inside the white walls of the El Paso Detention Center, located at the 8915 Montana Avenue. While he waited for an immigration hearing that eventually would decide if his case was approved or not, he wore an orange prison suit and dealt with the lack of medical attention.
“If you get sick they give you Tylenol ‘para todo’ (for everything),” Acosta said. “My family and I didn’t know we would be taken into a ‘prison,’ that we would be detained as criminals.”
During the months Acosta was detained, he considered abandoning his case and waiting for deportation. According to ICE information reported on the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), 265 detainees in immigration courts were deported in 2009.
“There were times when I was ready to quit and ask for deportation instead of keep waiting as a criminal,” he said.
According to México’s Foreign Ministry, around 1,500 Mexican nationals are in custody at the El Paso and Otero detention centers.
The Mexican Consulate has regular access to detention centers as part of its mission of taking care of and protecting the dignity of Mexican nationals in the United States.
Roberto Rodríguez Hernández, Mexican consul in El Paso, said that the consulate receives letters and phone calls on a regular basis from detainees complaining about the lack of punctual medical attention, poor quality of the food and even physical abuses.
However, Mexican authorities are not allowed to have any official contact with asylum petitioners because they forgo Mexican government protection once they seek protection in the U.S., Rodríguez said.
“When they seek asylum, they automatically refuse any help from México’s government,” Rodríguez said.