Asylum Denied: Only a fraction of Mexicans get U.S. asylum

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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."

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.

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