Thursday, April 1, 2010

U.S. approving more asylum applications from fearful Mexicans

U.S. approving more asylum applications from fearful Mexicans


José Jiménez, a Mexican mechanic, is now doing odd jobs in an American town after escaping a violent northern Mexican city where drug traffickers threatened to kill him when he refused to build secret compartments in tractor trailers to hide U.S.-bound drug shipments.

He's hoping the U.S. immigration system can keep him alive -- and he's not alone.

He is one of a growing number of Mexicans receiving asylum in the United States, where until recently most Mexican immigrants had sought work permits. But the escalating drug war violence south of the border over the last four years has prompted immigration judges and federal asylum officers to approve more Mexican asylum petitions.

``I definitely feel safer now,'' Jiménez said. ``But I'm still nervous. These criminals have resources and contacts everywhere.''

Jiménez, 49, is one of the first Mexican refugees to share his story. He is also the first with a known South Florida connection.

``Mexico has become the single most dangerous country in Latin America,'' said Jiménez' lawyer, Wilfredo Allen, a prominent Miami immigration attorney.

A Mexican government official, who did not want to be named, dismissed Allen's assertion, saying violence in Mexico is affecting a limited number of areas.

``Without trying to minimize the challenges we have, and without trying to point the finger at other countries, I would say the levels of violence in Mexico are lower than those we had 10 years ago or earlier, in relative terms,'' the official said. ``Most of the violence we are experiencing in Mexico is focused on a few cities, most of them along the border with the United States.''

In the past, asylum claims from Mexicans were typically rejected because judges and asylum officers deemed them fraudulent or frivolous. It's only in the last five years that authorities have taken a different view.

In fiscal year 2008, asylum officers and immigration judges combined approved 250 Mexican asylum petitions compared to 153 the previous year and 133 in 2006 -- the formal start of the war on drugs launched by Mexican President Felipe Calderón. Separate figures from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services show an increase in Mexican asylum case approvals from fiscal year 2007 to 2008 -- 146 to 264 -- but a decrease to 249 in the first 11 months of fiscal year 2009. USCIS cases often cover more than one person.

Though still relatively small compared to the number of asylum petitions from other countries, Mexican asylum approvals are significant when you consider that virtually all were were denied in the early 1990s.

The majority of new asylum applicants are former police officers, lawyers and journalists.

In the United States, asylum seekers can file petitions with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services whose asylum officers then decide the case. If approved, the asylum-seeker is granted a green card. If not, the case is referred to immigration court where a judge decides the case. If the judge rejects the case, the petitioner could be deported.

Jiménez, the Mexican mechanic, filed his asylum petition with USCIS last month. He and his attorney are scheduled to present the case to an asylum officer in April.

Jiménez talked about his experience Thursday. El Nuevo Herald agreed not to print his full name or the names of the Mexican city he fled and the Midwest city and state where he now lives.

"We as a society still see workplace flexibility policies as a special perk for women rather than a critical part of a workplace that can help all of us," he said. "There's still this perception out there that an employee who needs some time to tend to an aging parent or attend a parent-teacher conference isn't fully committed to his or her job; or that if you make a workplace more flexible, it necessarily will be less profitable."

He and first lady Michelle Obama, who also addressed the forum, spoke about the situation in their family before the president took office. She recalled needing to take their younger daughter with her to a job interview for a senior position in a Chicago hospital. Obama got the job, but said she knows "most people are nowhere near as lucky as I was."

That's particularly true for those in lower-level positions.

Lawyers, like the Obamas, journalists and others who can work from a home computer have an advantage when seeking flexible work arrangements. But for someone on the assembly line, no part of the job can be done at home.

The Obamas talked about the challenges they faced as a couple, with demanding careers and two young children. The president made it personal.

"I was away for days on end for my job, and Michelle was working hard at hers, so a lot of times we felt like we were just barely keeping everything together," he said. "When we were at work, we were worrying about what was happening at home. When we were at home, we were worrying about work. We both felt our overloaded schedules were taking a toll on our marriage."

As a number of participants pointed out, greater flexibility can result in not only happier workers, but also greater productivity. A report released at the forum by the president's Council of Economic Advisers said the benefits of adopting such practices "can outweigh the costs by reducing absenteeism, lowering turnover, improving the health of workers, and increasing productivity."

A copy of the report can be found with this column at

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