Mexican asylum seekers try to beat the odds in US

Mexicans have tough time gaining refugee status in US despite two countries’ sharing a border and a drug war.

Despite spending billions of dollars to fight drug cartels and international criminal organisations south of the border, the US seems uninterested in taking in victims of the raging violence still happening on its doorstep.

In the 2014 fiscal year there were more applicants from Mexico for asylum in the US than from any other country, with nearly 9,000 Mexicans applying for safe harbour in their neighbouring country to the north.

Almost 3,000 more Mexicans applied than Salvadorans. And nearly double the number of Mexicans applied for asylum in the US than Chinese. But Mexicans have a far smaller chance of gaining refugee status in the US.

The exact number of Mexican applicants last year: 8,840. The total that year granted asylum: 124 (not necessarily from the same 2014 fiscal year applicant pool). Over the same period, 4,773 Chinese citizens applied for asylum and 3976 were granted refugee status. 

Juan Miguel Cornejo, 38, is hoping to beat the odds.

Originally from Mexico City he has crossed the border several times. For the past 14 years he has worked as a carpenter, painter and handyman in the US.

He was forced to work at a drug stash house for a cartel in Arizona for two years as repayment for getting him across the border.

He has been deported several times, most recently last August, after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials arrested him outside his home when they were searching his neighbourhood for suspected criminals.

He was not on the list, but was arrested once his immigration status was found to be in question.

‘Kidnapped and beaten’

In January, he took a job painting houses in Nogales, Mexico, just south of the Arizona border and a three-hour drive from his wife and two teenage kids in Phoenix. He wanted to save up and support his family already suffering the financial burden of losing a bread-winner.

Instead, by his account he was kidnapped and beaten by members of a cartel and forced to dig tunnels used to smuggle drugs under the US border.

He was sure he would be killed, but managed to escape in broad daylight when they were working on a tunnel near the border fence and were detected by the Mexican military.

Fearing that authorities were colluding with the men who kidnapped him, he decided to report the crime to Mexican federal prosecutors and immediately turned himself over to US authorities at the port of entry where he asked for asylum.

He knows his chances are slim.

In the 2014 fiscal year, there were more applicants from Mexico for asylum in the US than from any other country [AP]

“I fear for my life, but I feel I have a better chance in the hands of Border Patrol, than sitting here in Nogales where I could be killed any minute,” he said.

Immigration lawyer Ray Ybarra Maldonado says he tells most of his Mexican clients not to waste money on the application since the chances are so low. But he also tells them that the applications do serve a purpose.

“They buy people time,” Ybarra Maldonado said.

Once an applicant is in US custody they can try other strategies to prolong their stay in the US or pray against the odds they convince a judge they should be allowed to stay.

But having multiple deportations has usually put a person on the priority list for deportation under President Barack Obama, even if they have children born in the US.

Sometimes they are allowed to go back home to their family while they await a judge’s decision.

Ironically, Juan Miguel’s wife Sandra Ojeda is happy to have her husband locked up in a US detention centre.

In custody

That is despite the fact that the facility where he is being held, the Eloy Detention Center, was the site of recent protests and a hunger strike by 200 prisoners who accused officers of using excessive force. Prisoners have also called for an independent investigation into a death there.

“I am more frightened by the idea of them letting him go in Mexico, because that would be more dangerous right now than if he is locked up,” said Ojeda. “Inside he is okay. Guarded, detained, but he’s alive – my kids have their father there, and can visit him. But if he is sent back across the border, his life is at risk.”

Juan Miguel turned himself in on May 7. He’s still in US custody and could be for at least another six months when he will get a shot at requesting bail from an immigration judge. His asylum case might take many years to get resolved.

Deportation is the most likely outcome, as it is for most Mexicans in his situation.

According to the US government, asylum “may be granted to people who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”

Part of proving a case involves showing that a government is unable to protect the person from the violence they experience.

Many migrant cases like Juan Miguel’s do not fit exactly into the protected categories based on what is defined as a “social group” by the US government.

That does not mean his life is any less at risk.

Source: Al Jazeera


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