Will Mexico's Runaway Sheriff Find Asylum in U.S.?

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Adriana Zehbrauskas / Polaris

Marisol Valles took charge of the police force in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

When 20-year old criminology student Marisol Valles was sworn in as a police chief in the embattled Mexican state of Chihuahua in October, she became an instant celebrity as the bravest woman in Mexico. Pundits and media commentators cheered the slight, bespectacled, innocent-looking young mother who had the guts to stand up to the drug cartels. What made her especially valiant was the fact that her predecessor as police chief of the small farming town of Praxedis Guadalupe Guerrero had been kidnapped and beheaded. The new sheriff said she would not even carry a gun, but would focus instead on community policing to cure the murderous ills.

Now, five months later, Valles has hit world news again with more ominous headlines: she has become the latest Mexican to seek political asylum in the United States. In her short-lived career she received reported death threats while many fellow police officers in Chihuahua were killed or fled. Like many asylum seekers, she will likely argue that her government is incapable of offering her protection from murderers.

Valles' case draws attention to a rising phenomenon — Mexicans seeking asylum in the United States using drug war violence as a rationale. Other recent cases include a cameraman from Durango state who had been kidnapped for a week until his TV station aired a narco propaganda video; an American-paid informant who says he would be strung from a tree if he steps foot south of the Rio Grande; and a Ciudad Juarez police officer who survived one bullet from gangsters and didn't want to stay around to be shot again. With the level of bloodshed in northern Mexico, immigration lawyers say, these asylum seekers have good arguments as to why Uncle Sam should offer them refuge. "A couple of years ago I wouldn't rarely move forward with Mexican political asylum applications as judges would almost always refuse them," says Houston immigration lawyer John Nechman. "Now I am handling three cases, which are all to do with drug related violence, and I have bunch of other possible cases I could take on."

However, it remains to be seen how judges will decide these cases. Mexico's narco war has seen 35,000 drug-related killings in four years. In 2010, U.S. courts received 3,231 applications from Mexicans for political asylum — some related to the drug war, some to other issues of persecution. The judges only granted asylum to 49 of those people, less than 2%. The rest of the applications were denied, abandoned or withdrawn. That number of successful applications had actually gone down compared to 2009, which saw 62 Mexicans granted asylum out of 2,816 applicants. One of those 2010 rulings may have set an ominous precedent for Valles. Juarez police officer José Alarcón had been shot after he stopped some gangsters for a driving offense — which he says was enough to put him on the hit list and make him flee to Texas. In December, a Dallas federal immigration judge denied his application. Alarcon remains in legal limbo in the United States as he appeals the ruling.

Nechman aruges that the tendency of U.S. judges to deny asylum to Mexicans is rooted in concern that doing otherwise would encourage more applications. With some six million Mexicans in the United States without papers, immigration officials want to be tough to make sure they don't all apply for asylum. "Especially here in Texas, there is a sense that if they grant Mexicans political asylum then the flood gates will open," Nechman says. In contrast, some other nationalities have had far greater success in applications. For example, in 2010 judges granted asylum to 3,795 of China's 10,087 applicants — a ratio some 20 times higher than the Mexicans. Judges also granted asylum to the majority of applicants from Armenia — 206 out of 232 applications.

There are of course many other factors determining these rulings. Applicants have the best chance if they can prove government persecution, which they have found easier to do in cases involving China or Armenia. However, the deteriorating security situation in Mexico could force judges to make some tough decisions. If applicants can prove they are being targeted by corrupt police working with gangsters, for example, they can argue they are suffering persecution from government forces.

Will Valles' celebrity status make whoever is judging her case more or less sympathetic to her plea? It typically takes more than a year before a ruling is made, during which time applicants can stay in the United States. Valles crossed into Texas after asking for leave ostensibly to take care of her son; she was then officially fired from her police job before her asylum claim was made public. Her husband and parents are reportedly with her in the United States, although officials have withheld information on their location citing security concerns. Even in Texas where she is seeking refuge, it appears that Valles still fears for her safety.