He didn’t leave for fortune or status. He wasn’t escaping a criminal past or leaving for a better future. As one of the only survivors left in his family, he simply ran for his life.
As a newly elected small town official in a cartel-dominated region of Mexico, he began getting threatening phone calls from local cartel members demanding municipal equipment and payments from local government funds. When he refused, the calls became daily death threats.
In Mexico, such threats aren’t idle. More than 145 political figures have been killed in the last nine months, according to Mexican risk analysis firm Etellekt.
When his own family members were targeted — a dozen kidnapped or killed in recent years — he decided to flee.
State, federal, military and international authorities in Mexico refused to help him or didn’t respond. So he went to the only place he thought offered hope: the United States.
He crossed the U.S. border legally and is now seeking asylum. He asked that his name not be used because he still lives in fear of retribution, even on this side of the border.
“The worst question we have to ask ourselves is where do we have left to run if we are denied,” he told the American-Statesman.
While national attention recently has focused on Central American asylum seekers, Mexicans face a particularly difficult hurdle: Mexican migrants have the highest denial rate of asylum petitions of any country. As the U.S. further restricts immigration policies, experts say the impact is likely to be tragic.
“More people will be returned to danger and probably death,” said Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.
The U.S. offers asylum to those who have suffered or fear they will suffer persecution because of their race, ethnicity or nationality; religion; political opinions; or membership in certain social groups.
Mexican asylum seekers are turned away 88 percent of the time — 9 percentage points higher than El Salvadorans, which has the second highest denial rate, and 10 percentage points higher than Hondurans, according to data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
The Trump administration has made it even tougher. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said recently that fears of gang and domestic violence weren’t eligible reasons for granting asylum.
Even before these changes, citing the danger of organized crime was mostly a losing strategy for Mexican nationals. Gilman estimates that fewer than 2 percent of petitioners fleeing organized crime violence in Mexico are granted asylum, a lower rate than those fleeing war zones.
Experts say the low numbers are not a coincidence.
Immigration courts, Gilman said, have been wary of granting asylum based on threats from organized crime, since it is so pervasive in Mexico. As homicides reach record levels — more than 25,000 in 2017 — U.S. officials worry that granting asylum for Mexicans fleeing cartel violence would open the floodgates to new migrants, she said.
Instead, immigration courts require migrants prove their government is involved in cartel violence or cannot protect them, a high legal hurdle for Mexican migrants compared to those from countries wracked by war or with widespread, well-known political persecution, such as Cuba.
“I think there is some sort of bias. Judges just don’t understand the situation,” Gilman said. “Maybe they have been to Cancun for vacation, and they just have a hard time seeing these claims as being valid ones. I don’t think it is fair or correct under the law that so few claims are granted but that is the pattern.”
Austin immigration lawyer Juan Lozada said the U.S. could strain its relations with Mexico and complicate NAFTA negotiations if it acknowledges the Mexican government is complicit with organized crime or can’t protect its citizens.
According Department of Homeland Security statistics, Mexican requests for asylum are skyrocketing. From 2007 to 2016, asylum petitions from Mexican migrants increased 500 percent, to 919.
Ariel Dulitzky, director of UT’s Human Rights Law Clinic, said the statistics are not surprising given the increase of violence. Clinic researchers found strong links between the Mexican political system and organized crime, leaving low-level officials particularly vulnerable.
The report alleged the cartels in recent years have paid off officials, including governors in the state of Coahuila. The cartels also seek contracts from state governments as a way to earn or launder money. In multiple well-documented cases, police have colluded with cartels.
However, Dulitzky said asylum claims based on violence are extremely difficult to prove with court evidence. Roughly 94 percent of crime in Mexico goes unreported, according to a 2017 report by the non-profit, non-partisan Mexican think tank, Ethos, and the Global Impunity Index. Of those that are reported, more than 95 percent don’t reach a conviction or court decision.
“In a context of violence, it is extremely dangerous to try to get evidence in these types of situations, because you put at risk you, your family (and) the witnesses,” Dulitzky said.
The offices of the Mexican Embassy and the Mexican Commissioner for National Security did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment for this story.
Sessions has sought to narrowly define the circumstances that would warrant asylum in myriad ways. “The asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune,” Session wrote. “It applies when persecution arises on account of membership in a protected group and the victim may not find protection except by taking refuge in another country.”
New guidelines distributed by U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services in 2017 for immigration agents interviewing asylum seekers encourage them to approve only those cases with a “significant” chance of being approved by an immigration judge. But the guidelines don’t define how a case would meet that threshold.
Immigrant advocates also worry Sessions is weighing in on asylum appeals directly and is circumventing the Board of Immigration Appeals.
Sessions has ruled on three cases in 2018 — more than the number decided by the attorneys general during the entire Obama administration. Gilman said Sessions’ interpretations of the law have been particularly narrow.
Critics of U.S. asylum policies say the current process is vulnerable to fraud and abuse by those who don’t really need protection but simple want to immigrate to the U.S.
“Fraud in the asylum process is particularly problematic because it undermines the immigration enforcement system, delays the receipt of protection and public benefits by legitimate asylum seekers, and is susceptible to exploitation by terrorists,” wrote Andrew R. Arthur, a former immigration judge and a fellow of law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, in a 2017 report. The center is a conservative think tank that advocates for allowing fewer immigrants into the U.S.
The Trump administration also has argued the U.S. Constitution does not give migrants the right to parole or bond, a position recently affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, leading to long waits in detention centers for asylum seekers while judges make their decisions.
“The more you are detained, the lower your likelihood that you will stick with it,” Lozada said. “Even if you face an uncertain future back home.”
As of May 2018, asylum seekers in Texas waited 897 days in detention centers, according to the Syracuse University clearinghouse. That’s the third highest average wait due to backlog, behind Illinois and Colorado.
When the former Mexican official fleeing the cartels came to the U.S. with his family, they received help from American Gateways, a non-profit group that provides legal and educational help to migrants. Their application for asylum was denied, and he has appealed.
Were the case not pro bono, his legal fees would easily exceed $100,000, according to his attorney.
And having an attorney makes a difference. Some 38 percent of 14,688 Mexican asylum cases lacked legal representation from 2012 to 2017, 97 percent of which were denied. Of those with a lawyer advocating on their behalf, only 83 percent were denied.
The former official said his anxiety grows as a decision on his appeal approaches. “I wake up in in the middle of the night and remember that the possibility (of being denied) draws closer every day,” he said. “I come home and immediately check the mailbox, in hopes that there will be a response from the judge.”
About this story
This story is the result of a semester-long reporting project with the University of Texas’ National Association of Hispanic Journalists chapter.