“No sane Mexican would want to live in the U.S.,” explains legal scholar Edgardo Buscaglia, “because of the discrimination there. But they have to do it,” he notes, because there simply are not enough jobs in Mexico. The massive migration that has taken place in recent decades is predominantly the result of economic policies that have had the effect of expanding wealth disparities. Migration from Mexico represents the “largest wave from a single country to the United States,” and in the last forty years, about 12 million Mexicans have migrated north.
By 2008, one in ten Mexicans, some 11.4 million people, resided in the United States. However, the global financial crisis, combined with the increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and the numerous costs and perils associated with emigrating to the United States from Mexico and Central America, have dissuaded increasing numbers from taking the risk. In the early 2000s the Mexican and Central American exodus to the United States represented the largest migration of people across a border on the planet. But between 2005 and 2010, the number of migrants (many with U.S.-born children) returning to Mexico was roughly equivalent to that of those who journeyed north (about 1.4 million), resulting in a net standstill in the number of new arrivals in the United States. Nevertheless, as migration to the United States appears to have declined, the number of requests from Mexican nationals seeking asylum has doubled in the last three years.
This recent development has raised fears among immigration hawks in the U.S. who contend that claims of “credible fear” made by asylum seekers from Mexico are illegitimate. Republican House member Bob Goodlatte, for example, argued that undocumented migrants were exploiting legal vulnerabilities in the United States with unfounded assertions that their lives would be in danger were they to be deported back to Mexico. A similar view is repeated throughout the mainstream U.S. media. One Wall Street Journal article, for example, discussed how undocumented migrants use the legal obligation of the U.S. authorities to hear claims of “credible fear” in order “to disappear into America's underground economy.” While it is possible that a minority of asylum requests come from individuals hoping to stay in the United States in order to find employment, there is every reason to believe that most of the requests are genuine.
In order to be granted asylum, claimants have to prove that persecution is related to race, religion, nationality, or political opinion. These make the Mexican cases difficult to argue in immigration courts unless claimants can prove that they belong to a “social group” which itself is the target of maltreatment by criminal gangs.
In any case, the actual number of requests granted to Mexicans would not appear to justify the alarmism common in the media and among politicians. In spite of the indisputable climate of violence and insecurity in the context of the guerra al narco, the authorities have rejected the overwhelming majority of asylum requests from Mexican nationals. In 2011, for example, 1.1 percent of Mexican applicants were granted asylum, whereas those from China rose to 35 percent, and those from Iraq to 67 percent. In fiscal year 2012, more than 80 percent of asylum applicants from Egypt, Iran, and Somalia were given amnesty.
That the number of asylum requests made by Mexican nationals in the first months of 2013 was more than double for all those from 2011 is a reflection of wider trends throughout the country. Where the legal neoliberal economy has pushed greater numbers of the population into poverty and unemployment, the illegal economy exploits an intensified climate of financial insecurity. In the states of Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, or Michoacán, for example, cartels demand protection money from store owners, business people—in fact, anyone who is known to have any money. And the threats of violence are backed up by very real assaults, murders, and enforced disappearances. One eminent case is that of Carlos Gutiérrez, previously a successful businessman in Chihuahua who refused to agree demands by a cartel to pay $10,000 every month in exchange for his personal safety. Members of the cartel returned, cut off his feet, and left him for dead, presumably to provide the example of Mr. Gutiérrez to anyone else considering refusing payment.
Between 2006 and 2012, the authorities claimed to have investigated 283,000 complaints of extortion, although most cases are probably never reported. Although the government maintains that it is investigating such crimes, rarely do they end in a prosecution. Like all other kinds of violent crime in Mexico, reports of extortion have expanded massively. Between 1997 and 2012, for example, reported cases grew eightfold, from 876 to 7,272. And levels of impunity appear to mirror the increase in crimes committed. In the year 2000, for every 100 reports of extortion, 31 led to prosecution, while by 2012, only 7 in every 100 were punished by law.
These are, of course, in relation to cases that are actually reported to the authorities. According to figures published by the government human rights commission, only one in ten crimes in Mexico is reported. And the rate of successful prosecution for those crimes is close to one percent. Assuming these figures represent an accurate picture of the scale of impunity in Mexico, the means that about one in every thousand crimes committed leads to a prosecution. Given this context, it is not difficult to understand why more Mexicans are now claiming asylum in the United States. Clearly, their assertions of “credible fear” are more than a convenient pretext to stay on U.S. soil.
In addition, the dramatic rise in the number of kidnappings, extortions, and violent crime as an upshot of the war on organized crime (a war supported and bankrolled by President Bush and eagerly followed by his successor) is a strong indication that the bilateral policy which ostensibly was designed to alleviate a security crisis is instead making it much worse.
Poverty and lack of opportunities are the principal motivations for “sane” Mexicans embarking on the perilous journey over the border, but it is also the threat of violence that pushes increasing numbers of people to flee. In some cases it is the cartels that have infiltrated the authorities; in others, it is the cartels who are the authorities.
Since former president Felipe Calderón initiated the war on organized crime in 2006 by unleashing the power of the Mexican military to occupy towns, villages, and barrios, the growing violence has probably forcibly displaced as many as 250,000 people internally. This number could be much higher, owing to a widespread distrust of the authorities and a consequent reluctance to report intimidation and threats of violence. During the same period in Mexico, a country with a population of 112 million, some five million homes have been abandoned.
The government and its drug war ally in Washington either cannot or will not establish the rule of law. It is this climate of impunity which causes people to leave. That fleets of trucks and SUVs containing dozens of masked men wielding assault rifles can drive through town without drawing the scrutiny of law enforcement sends a powerful and terrifying message to civil society. Vehicles which openly display cartel affiliation with the initials and logo of a particular criminal organization reveal who is genuinely in charge.
Migrants from Mexico are in the United States out of economic desperation. Asylum seekers flee because they fear for their safety. But both governments are engaged in economic policies and a militarized drug war that have led to a radical deterioration in public security while they completely disregard the rule of law. A rational strategy for managing the crisis of violence in Mexico will have to address, as Buscaglia argues, the issues of poverty and unemployment and the climate of impunity that allow organized criminal syndicates to flourish. In the present context, however, the political will for such a strategy is almost non-existent. Only a strong and organized political movement from civil society is capable of achieving the radical changes so desperately required to end Mexico’s misery and madness.
Peter Watt teaches Latin American Studies at the University of Sheffield. He is co-author of the book, Drug War Mexico: Politics, Violence and Neoliberalism in the New Narcoeconomy (Zed Books 2012).