Mexicans winning U.S. asylum as they flee drug violence

Miami HeraldApril 3, 2010 

Jose Jimenez, a Mexican mechanic, is now doing odd jobs in an American town after escaping a violent northern Mexican city where drug traffickers threatened to kill him when he refused to build secret compartments in tractor trailers to hide U.S.-bound drug shipments.

He's hoping the U.S. immigration system can keep him alive -- and he's not alone.

He is one of a growing number of Mexicans receiving asylum in the United States, where until recently most Mexican immigrants had sought work permits. But the escalating drug war violence south of the border over the last four years has prompted immigration judges and federal asylum officers to approve more Mexican asylum petitions.

"I definitely feel safer now,'' Jimenez said. "But I'm still nervous. These criminals have resources and contacts everywhere.''

"Mexico has become the single most dangerous country in Latin America,'' said Jimenez's lawyer, Wilfredo Allen, a prominent Miami immigration attorney.

A Mexican government official, who did not want to be named, dismissed that assertion, saying violence in Mexico is affecting a limited number of areas.

"Without trying to minimize the challenges we have, and without trying to point the finger at other countries, I would say the levels of violence in Mexico are lower than those we had 10 years ago or earlier, in relative terms,'' the official said. "Most of the violence we are experiencing in Mexico is focused on a few cities, most of them along the border with the United States.''

In the past, asylum claims from Mexicans were typically rejected because judges and asylum officers deemed them fraudulent or frivolous. It's only in the last five years that authorities have taken a different view.

In fiscal year 2008, asylum officers and immigration judges combined approved 250 Mexican asylum petitions compared to 153 the previous year and 133 in 2006 -- the formal start of the war on drugs launched by Mexican President Felipe Calderón. Separate figures from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services show an increase in Mexican asylum case approvals from fiscal year 2007 to 2008 -- 146 to 264 -- but a decrease to 249 in the first 11 months of fiscal year 2009. USCIS cases often cover more than one person.

Though still relatively small compared to the number of asylum petitions from other countries, Mexican asylum approvals are significant when you consider that virtually all were were denied in the early 1990s. The majority of new asylum applicants are former police officers, lawyers and journalists.

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