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US denies safe haven to Mexico’s drug war refugees

World Refugee Day 20 June

The war on drugs has evolved from a tough-sounding metaphor into a real armed conflict. Mexicans are starting to move in search of safety, seeking refuge both at home and abroad.

There is plenty to flee from. The homicide rate in Mexico has rocketed – 55,000 people have died since President Felipe Calderón first declared war on the cartels in 2006. Meanwhile, successful prosecutions have plummeted; impunity reigns.

Northern border states, the epicentre of the violence, are starting to thin out. Some 230,000 people have already left to escape the lawlessness. Around half of these have fled to more tranquil parts of their own country; the rest have headed north to the US.

A growing number of Mexicans are seeking protection from the US on legal grounds. Asylum applications have doubled since the start of Calderón’s war – which is supported by the US to the tune of $1.6 billion. But the increasing desperation of the Mexican people is not met with understanding across the border. Of the 6,011 applications from Mexican nationals last year, just 104 were granted – a success rate of 1.7 per cent.

‘They would not be considered refugees unless they could prove that their religious or ethnic group was being systematically targeted by the cartels,’ says Cindi Gilliland, the founder of Arizona Refugee Connection. ‘Simply fleeing drug violence in their home cities would not qualify Mexicans for refugee status.’

The handful of people fortunate enough to have their applications approved count on the help of non-governmental organizations. Catholic Family Services in Amarillo, Texas, receives daily requests for help. ‘All the ones* I’ve been working with have been approved,’ says immigration counsellor Al Muniz. ‘We have been able to prove that if they go back to their country [criminals] will kill them and their families. But you have to prove a lot.’

Calderón’s military offensive against the cartels has backfired badly, causing an escalation of brutal violence. Authorities claim most of the murders are gangsters killing other gangsters, but poor investigations and deep-seated corruption makes it impossible to know how many victims are innocent bystanders. ‘We know people are dying; bodies are showing up,’ says security expert Walter McKay, who is based in Mexico City. ‘But we don’t know if they’re “bad guys” or not. We don’t have much of a justice system, and anywhere from 40 to 60 people every day are getting killed.’

Rich Mexicans are able to buy their way out – a simple exchange of Greenbacks for Green Cards: anyone who deposits $50,000 or more into US companies qualifies for an ‘investor visa’. The vast majority of migrants risk crossing the ever more heavily guarded border without papers or permission – an estimated 5,000 have died trying in the last 13 years.

The US is hostile to both narcotics and Mexican immigration. But its efforts to stem the tide of narcotics has led only to a surge in the inflow of migrants.

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Corrections and clarifications:
* Edit: The printed version changed “ones” to “people”.
† Correction: While E2 Business Visas can be issued for investments at this level, the EB5 “direct to green card” option starts at $500,000. The writer regrets the error.

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