The war next door, and the US’s newest refugee population

Refugees made the front page of the Sunday New York Times this morning, and above the fold at that; but you might be surprised to learn the origin of the US’s fastest growing refugee population: Mexico. Drug wars in the northern state of Juárez along the border with Texas are sending thousands fleeing north.

In El Paso alone, the police estimate that at least 30,000 Mexicans have moved across the border in the past two years because of the violence in Juárez and the river towns to the southeast. So many people have left El Porvenir and nearby Guadalupe Bravos that the two resemble ghost towns, former residents say.

Similar to Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, drug-related violence in Mexico has displaced thousands; unlike Colombia, many displaced Mexicans are seeking shelter outside of their country. Although a few incidents of drug-related violence have occurred on the US side of the Rio Grande, Texan border towns like El Paso and Fort Hancock remain remarkably peaceful. This combined with regional family ties and a long history of border crossings (and borders crossing; Texas to California and north to Oregon and Wyoming were, after all, part of Mexico for 300 years before they were part of the US) make fleeing north an obvious choice.

The Times article, written by James C. McKinley, Jr., presents several cases that will sound familiar to anyone who has worked with war-affected populations. New arrivals report sleep disturbances (and being able to get some sleep for the first time in weeks), pervasive anxiety symptoms, and that their children only play one repetitive macabre game, in this case called “sicarios” — hitmen.

So, are we welcoming Mexican forced migrants with open arms?

“This is an emergency situation, a war,” said Jorge Luis Aguirre, a journalist who himself has asked for asylum after his life was threatened in 2008 in Ciudad Juárez. “It’s a question of life and death for these people.”

But few Mexicans are granted asylum. Over the last three federal fiscal years, immigration judges heard 9,317 requests across the country, and granted only 183.

Fort Hancock has had a surge in applications in March and April, officials said. All told the number of people asking for asylum at ports of entry along the border alone has climbed steadily, to 338 for the federal fiscal year ended last October, from 179 two years before.

With much of the last twenty years spent preventing illegal immigration from Mexico, it is of course not surprising that immigration authorities would find asylum claims by all Mexicans suspect. But with the recent recession in the US, cross border immigration has decreased to some of the lowest levels in years. The refugees from the Mexican borderlands are not coming for economic reasons, they are running for their lives.

They are being met in this country by a harsh anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican climate. Not far to the west, the Arizona legislature has passed the most stringent immigration enforcement law in the US, one that asks and allows local police to determine whether someone is in US illegally using “reasonable suspicion” alone. Although police chiefs and civil libertarians (as well as immigrant advocacy groups) have spoken out against the bill, Governor Jan Brewer is expected to sign it into law within the next few weeks.

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