Mexicans Lured To Border By Faint Hope Of Asylum
Thursday, February 13, 2014
Aired 2/14/14 on KPBS News.
Residents of embattled towns in Mexico's Michoacán state are fleeing to the U.S.-Mexico border in search of asylum. But experts say their chances of getting it are slim.
At the Instituto Madre Asunta shelter for migrant women and children in Tijuana, a woman in a red sweatshirt with a sullen face tries to keep her 4-year-old son entertained while she tells a stranger her story.
"I came here with my four children to ask for political asylum because of everything that's going on in Michoacán, but unfortunately things aren't the way I thought," she said.
She calls herself Rosa. But that's not her real name.
An ongoing battle between a drug cartel and vigilante groups in Mexico’s Michoacán state is sending people like Rosa fleeing to the U.S.-Mexico border. Many are seeking asylum in the U.S. But Tijuana’s migrant shelters are full of those who have been turned away.
Rosa and the other women from Michoacán staying at the Tijuana shelter didn’t want their real names or photos published for fear of retaliation against them or their families.
They say that retaliation could come from any side in the ongoing battle for control in Michoacán. In an area known as Tierra Caliente, about 300 miles west of Mexico City, the Knights Templar drug cartel is fighting local vigilante groups and Mexican police and soldiers.
Families fleeing Michoacán began showing up in Tijuana around October of last year. But the numbers have swelled in the first months of 2014, said Mari Galván, a social worker at the Madre Asunta shelter.
"Some days, six families arrive," she said, "each mom with three to four kids."
The shelter’s 45 beds have been consistently full in recent weeks, Galván said. They're full of women trying to figure out their next move after learning they don’t qualify for asylum in the U.S.
Rosa and her four kids first went to the San Ysidro Port of Entry to ask for asylum on February 1. Rosa said she mostly did it out of fear for her 15-year-old son.
Residents of Michoacán say both the vigilante groups and the drug cartel are forcibly recruiting young men into their ranks.
But Rosa was turned back at the U.S. border. She tried again the next day, and the family was detained while an officer determined whether Rosa had a reasonable basis for claiming asylum.
They were again denied.
“The standards are pretty tight," said Jan Joseph Bejar, a San Diego-based immigration lawyer. "Mexico is not a country from which we grant asylum easily.”
In Fiscal Year 2012, immigration judges granted asylum to only one percent of applicants from Mexico — 126 people.
But in recent months, some asylum seekers from Michoacán have been allowed into the U.S. after passing what's known as a "credible fear" interview at the border. The interview is meant to establish whether a person has a minimum possibility of receiving asylum.
Many of those who are deemed to have a "credible fear" of returning to their home country are permitted to live freely in the U.S. until their case is resolved by an immigration judge.
Still, experts and statistics suggest that most of the Michoacanos hoping for asylum in the U.S. won't win their cases, and will end up with deportation orders.
But it's a detail that seems to have gotten lost in the rumor mill.
Rosa said she had lots of friends and family members who had made it to the U.S.
"Many have gone to Chicago, Los Angeles, Fresno," she said.
Bejar said these kinds of rumor mills are a gold mine for fraudsters.
Recent news reports have suggested that people in Mexico are charging migrants for documents they say could help them win an asylum case.
"As with so many things that are tied to immigration, you find that as soon as there’s a problem, there are all these opportunists that come out of the woodwork and basically prey on the people in need,” Bejar said.
The women at the Madre Asunta shelter said no one had defrauded them. But some had sold most of their possessions and borrowed money to make the trip north.
Broke and stuck in Tijuana, Rosa had yet to figure out her next move. As it turns out, two of her four children were no longer with her.
Her two daughters are American citizens, and when immigration authorities detained the family, they gave Rosa the opportunity to find relatives in the U.S. who could take them in.
She choked up as she told of the niece who came from Los Angeles to pick them up at San Ysidro.
"It's better for them," she said. "I know they're safe."
She said she planned to leave them in the U.S. until the turmoil ended in Michoacán.