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United We Stand: Asylum Seekers Test America's Broken Immigration System

US and Border Patrol flags fly over a border crossing.
US and Border Patrol flags fly over a border crossing.
Alex Rodriguez

They're called the Dream 9 -- young men and women who were brought into the country when they were children but who returned to Mexico, their birthplace, and then attempted to re-enter the United States last summer.

They didn't cross under the cover of darkness. They didn't hike for days through the treacherous desert terrain along the Arizona-Mexico border. They didn't hire a coyote to smuggle them across the border under the floorboards of a windowless van.

Instead, in a show of protest against the mass deportations executed under President Obama's administration and to test federal immigration policies, the group crossed a pedestrian bridge and presented themselves in July to federal immigration agents at the Nogales port of entry.

Among them was Adriana Diaz, 22, born in Mexico City but brought to Phoenix by her parents when she was 4 months old. The bright, artistic young woman and her family had returned to the country of her birth "because she was tired of living in fear under [Maricopa County Sheriff Joe] Arpaio, not knowing each night if her mom was going to come home," reported KVOA, a Tucson television station.

Arpaio and his deputies engaged in racial profiling during "crime-suppression sweeps" that targeted Latino neighborhoods, raided businesses to arrest undocumented workers, and encouraged residents to report immigrants suspected to be here without papers.

Diaz wanted to return to Phoenix because she was considered a foreign student in Mexico and had difficulties pursuing a higher education, the Tucson station reported.

The activists were locked up for a couple of weeks at an immigration detention center in Eloy. An attorney representing them sought asylum for her clients, and they were eventually released after they convinced immigration officials that they had a "credible fear" of persecution if they remained in Mexico.

A few months after the Dream 9 arrived in Nogales, another group, known as the Dream 30, showed up at a Texas port of entry. A third, larger group of Mexican nationals who once had lived in the States with their families also banded together in a show of unity and protest as they sought asylum in the U.S.

David C. Bennion, a Philadelphia attorney who represents many of these individuals, says his clients are seeking asylum for various reasons.

Some came from states plagued by rampant cartel violence, like Sinaloa, Michoacan, Veracruz, and Guerrero. Because of their known ties to the United States -- identified by their accents, appearance, or by word of mouth -- several were victims of extortion or threats by the police in Mexico. Others had relatives who were kidnapped or murdered.

Some experienced persecution because they are gay or because of their political activities.

Although none has been granted asylum yet, almost all the border-crossers in the first two groups were allowed to remain here while their applications moved through the process. Six of them were deported.

Not all asylum seekers are as fortunate.

 

Mexican nationals with strong ties to the United States who have participated in group crossings are part of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance's "Bring Them Home" campaign.

As the world watches their high-profile and gutsy stands at ports of entry, Alliance members have an advantage of political pressure and strength in numbers. However, many others languish in the system.

Those who are all but invisible and are seeking refuge in the States are forced to spend months in holding cells before federal officers arrive to conduct what's known as a "credible fear" interview. They have to convince the officers of their legitimate expectations that, if returned to their home countries, they will be persecuted or tortured. Seeking asylum while detained is referred to as a "defensive" application. That is, the request for asylum is a person's defense during removal proceedings.

As recently as October 2013, says Regina Jefferies, an immigration attorney in Phoenix, she saw detained applicants waiting, in some cases, six to seven months for such a conference.

The closest asylum office is in Los Angeles, and it's from there that immigration officials are dispatched to interview asylum-seekers in Arizona.

"That's what so difficult for people," Jefferies says. "If they have no criminal history, no negative immigration contacts, it doesn't matter. They automatically have to be detained in almost every case."

She says, "They're stuck. They've fled horrific things at home only to be caught up in a system where they have to be detained. They're caught in limbo."

And getting an audience with an asylum officer is nearly always a prerequisite for a defensive application -- and only if the officer deems there is credible fear can an individual continue the process.

Those not in custody and already in the country go through an "affirmative" asylum process. Neither immigration status nor how long a person has been in the U.S. matters, but he or she must apply for asylum within one year of the most recent arrival.

Jefferies, who primarily represents clients who aren't detained, says the rule often further complicates the process for immigrants because many don't even know they qualify for asylum.

"[An asylum request] is really one area where people need legal representation, and it should be provided to them," she says.

"Not knowing [about the one-year rule] is not an excuse," she says. "Which doesn't make sense in a lot of cases -- especially in Mexican cases. People are escaping persecution by police or quasi-government officials; I doubt that the first person they're going to want to talk to is a government official."

She says people going through the affirmative process often, because of backlogs, get stuck waiting even longer -- a year or more -- to have their cases heard than their jailed counterparts.

And, typically, after an arduous journey in search of safety and wading through a complicated and lengthy application process, most are refused the right to stay in America.

Of the about 1,400 asylum cases heard in Arizona immigration courts over a five-year period, only about a third were granted, according to statistics compiled by TRAC, a Syracuse University-based data-research-and-distribution organization.

New Times reviewed TRAC data for seven immigration judges in Eloy, Florence, and Phoenix and found that between fiscal years 2007 and 2012, they collectively denied asylum for about 940 individuals.

About 460 asylum-seekers were granted a fresh start.

 

Over the past five years, as overall applications for asylum around the world -- from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe -- generally have decreased, the number of Mexicans seeking asylum has increased 21/2 times.

There were 9,206 Mexicans who sought U.S. asylum in fiscal year 2012 compared to 3,650 applicants in fiscal 2008, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, an arm of the Department of Justice.

During that time, even though requests for asylum from Mexico nearly tripled, officials continued to grant only a few requests.

In 2008, 73 people (about 2 percent) were granted asylum. In 2012, only 126 (or 1.3 percent) were approved.

"Cases that argued fear of generalized violence or unstable country conditions as the reason for fleeing and as ground for asylum were rejected," wrote Sebastian Albuja, a member of the Norwegian Refugee Council's Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, in an article in the February issue of Forced Migration, published by the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford in England.

By contrast, Albuja wrote that "the cases that were successful had specific evidence -- names of cartel or police members, hospital or police reports, and witness testimony.

They also could demonstrate and articulate why and how they feared persecution." Leticia Calderon Chelius, an Institute Mora professor in Mexico, wrote in the same edition of Forced Migration that about 160 people are in the group of immigrants.

She wrote that members decided, "having fled assassinations, extortion, disappearances, and fear . . . a better strategy would be to [form an organization] and publicly and visibly seek political asylum."

It's working - for now.

But attorney Bennion says the most recent group of about 160 immigrants, who showed up at the San Diego port of entry as part of the "Bring Them Home" campaign, are having much more difficulty getting the right to apply for asylum.

"Most of the other families still are detained," he says. "The government is actually fighting back really hard to deny as many cases and deport as many people as it can. It's clear there is political motivation to deny and deport these people to deter others from doing the same."

He says only about 8 percent of immigrants nationally fail their credible-fear interviews. In the cases he's handling, involving the last group of crossers, the denial rate is about 85 percent.

"We've gotten 20 decisions so far, and almost all of them have been negative," he says. "Judges and asylum officers, I think, have a real bias against Mexican applicants, in particular. They have not acknowledged the dramatic change in country conditions there over the last eight years during the drug war."

But immigrant-rights groups argue that Mexicans fleeing corruption and unbridled violence, especially those with family ties to the United States, must be granted protection.

"Banding together in response to a situation of this seriousness gives people strength and confidence, and provides emotional, social and -- above all -- legal and political support," Calderon Chelius wrote. "[They are] demanding international justice for their situation."

E-mail monica.alonzo@newtimes.com.

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