I Know This World Is Killing You

In the course of my border-violence-fearmongering smackdown yesterday (not to be confused with Jamelle’s border-violence-fearmongering smackdown yesterday) I was a little more blase about the actual violence on the Mexican side of the border than I ought to have been. After four years of drug wars, “the single most dangerous country in Latin America” is in the U.S.’s backyard. I’m aware that U.S. drug policy bears a lot of responsibility for creating an environment where things could have gotten this bad, but at the moment I’m more concerned with the crisis of the moment — and the number of people it’s driven out of Mexico to seek refuge in the United States. One report says that the number of Mexican nationals petitioning for asylum more than doubled from 2007 to 2008 alone.

You might think that as the need for asylum became obviously more urgent, the federal government would be more willing to grant it. You might also think that it would be sensible for the U.S. to help improve security in northern Mexico by protecting innocent victims, or at least journalists, police officers and informants who’ve made enemies of drug cartels by fighting them. But according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services statistics, the proportion of those petitions that get approved has remained essentially flat: 151 people were granted asylum in 2007, either by an asylum officer or an immigration judge, while a whopping 247 petitions were granted in 2008 and 254 were granted in 2009. Because CIS doesn’t release the total number of petitions in any given year, it’s impossible to know what percentage of Mexicans who applied for asylum received it. But there are specific numbers for cases that go before immigration judges — the petitions an asylum officer thinks are “on the bubble” and need further review, or petitions filed by undocumented immigrants facing deportation after being arrested — and those are deeply depressing. Immigration judges examined 2,816 asylum claims in 2009. They approved 62 of them. (The other 192 approvals last year were comparatively “easy” cases, granted by asylum officers without getting referred to a judge.)

The problem is that fear of violence isn’t sufficient to justify asylum — no matter how credible the fear, how bad the violence or how powerful the oppressor. Asylum requires a “credible fear of persecution” based on race, ethnicity, religion, politics or “social group.” This is a relic of the mid-20th century, when totalitarian governments were the biggest humanitarian threats, but what’s called “persecution” when a government does it is mere thuggery when done by a drug cartel. A journalist threatened by secret police might have a plausible asylum claim based on fear of political persecution. (EDIT: Don’t get me wrong, it’d still be a tough case to make. Most asylum cases are uphill battles. But it’d be possible.) But a journalist threatened by cartel mercenaries (or corrupt soldiers) doesn’t really have a case at all.

In fact, the U.S. government is actively fighting to deny asylum petitions to police officers targeted by cartels for refusing bribes — they argue that “the threat that caused (them) to flee is inherent to police work.” Translation: they were asking for it.

This creates an impossible double standard, of course. Innocent bystanders whose safety in Mexico is threatened by the violence raging around them are ineligible for asylum because they haven’t been targeted for persecution. But those who are targeted, because they’re trying to fight the “bad guys,” are ineligible for asylum because they picked the fight.

Again, if Felipe Calderon’s government were doing this actively to its people, it might be a completely different story. But it’s just too weak to protect them, or to fight corruption and collaboration in the military and among local officials. The difference between asylum and a raw deal is who’s paying the dude holding the gun. It’s more than a little tragic that even as fear of Mexican drug lords drives Americans into a frenzy, when it comes to asylum policy we can’t admit that they have all that much influence over people’s lives.

Permadisclaimer: my views on immigration policy are entirely my own and are in no way associated with my employer or any other organization.

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Dara Lind

Dara Lind