Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mexican official in US custody doesn't want asylum

October 20, 2009

EL PASO, Texas — A Mexican human rights official who has publicly said he feared for his life has been detained by U.S. immigration authorities as an asylum-seeker — even though he doesn't want American protection, his lawyer said.

Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson is being held indefinitely at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement jail in El Paso while the U.S. decides whether to grant him asylum.

De la Rosa, who travels frequently to the U.S. on a tourist visa, was detained Thursday when he tried to cross the border from Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, said de la Rosa's El Paso lawyer, Carlos Spector.

A border agent asked him about previous comments that he feared he might be killed after claiming he had evidence of at least 170 cases of Mexican army human rights violations, Spector said. De la Rosa confirmed the media reports and reiterated his fears but never asked for asylum in the U.S., the lawyer said.

Roger Maier, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection whose agents interview people trying to enter the U.S. and refer asylum seekers to immigration officials, said if during an interview at the border someone expresses fear of being returned to their home country, officers are required to turn their case over to an asylum officer.

"The applicant does not have to specifically request asylum, they simply must express fear of being returned to their country," Maier said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said Monday she could not comment on the specifics of de la Rosa's case. But in a statement issued last week, she said de la Rosa was jailed because of "mandatory detention provisions and will be afforded all rights and procedures allowed under our laws."

De la Rosa is a government human rights official in Mexico's Chihuahua state, which includes Ciudad Juarez, where more than 3,000 people have been killed in the ongoing drug cartel war over the last two years. De la Rosa has said soldiers assigned to patrol the nearly lawless city have been committing human rights violations and other crimes.

He told reporters in El Paso recently that all his claims of human rights violations have been forwarded to Mexican military authorities in Mazatlan. But, he said, a judge there has not acted on a single case, including allegations that one soldier shot a man while others held the man's wife and child.

Last month, he said a man dressed in civilian clothes pointed a gun at him in traffic and threatened to kill him if he didn't stop his investigations.

"I'm afraid that my family is afraid. My family is scared," de la Rosa told reporters in El Paso, but added he would not seek asylum in the U.S.

Spector said the situation is a legal "nightmare," with de la Rosa stuck in jail while the asylum case he didn't want is reviewed. Such cases often take months, and the U.S. rarely grants asylum to citizens of ally countries.

"This is a very unusual way of forcing him to seek asylum so they can jail him and deny it," Spector said Saturday.

In the last few years countless Mexican nationals, including police officials, journalists and a prosecutor, have sought asylum in the U.S.

Asylum cases hinge on proving that a person is being persecuted because of his race, religion, political view, nationality or membership in a particular social group. The applicant also has to prove that his government is either part of the persecution or unable or unwilling to protect him, a difficult task when the asylum seeker is part of the government.

Spector said de la Rosa just wants to go back to work investigating human rights violations in Chihuahua state.

"He wants to remain living and working in Mexico," Spector said.

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