Defending Refugees from Mexico’s Drug War


A version of this story ran in the March 2012 issue.

CarlosspectorWhen the drug war exploded in 2008 in Juarez, refugees started to pour across the border into El Paso. They told harrowing stories of attempted assassination and kidnapping. Yet they had little hope of being granted asylum in the United States.

Typically, the United States grants less than 2 percent of asylum requests from Mexican citizens each year. That’s largely because U.S. asylum law was created in the 1980s to protect people fleeing authoritarian regimes during the Cold War. The law gives preference to refugees fleeing government persecution, not organized crime syndicates. Many U.S. immigration attorneys choose not to take Mexican drug war asylum cases because they think they’re impossible to win. But not Carlos Spector. Inundated with refugees in 2008, Spector, a longtime El Paso immigration attorney, devised a plan of action to win cases and show Mexicans that asylum is possible.

“It’s disturbing, considering the high level of violence up and down the border and throughout Mexico, that more firms aren’t taking up these cases,” Spector says. “I think there’s a certain amount of fear, and a lack of familiarity with politics in Mexico. They believe the government hype that anyone who flees Mexico is involved with the drug business.”

Spector was one of the first U.S. attorneys to win an asylum claim, for a Mexican political leader in 1991. As people fled the violence in 2008, he carefully chose cases he thought could be successful, including journalists and human rights and community activists. He’s done each case pro bono. More than just representing refugees in court, Spector and his wife Sandra, a veteran community organizer, have gone a step further, creating an organization in El Paso called Mexicans in Exile. The nonprofit, the first of its kind, raises funds for trauma counseling, housing, and other refugee needs, as well as arranging speaking tours so that asylum recipients can educate U.S. residents about the realities of the drug war.

The official story is that Mexico’s military is fighting and dismantling the drug cartels. But the truth, Spector and the people he represents say, is far more complicated. Spector and his clients are changing the conventional wisdom about Mexico’s drug war by making their cases public. In many cases, they say, innocent civilians with no involvement in the drug trade are killed or persecuted by corrupt military and government officials. Spector says that in the state of Chihuahua alone, more than 56 elected officials have been murdered in the last six years, along with 36 chiefs of police and 21 human rights activists.

“People should be screaming about this at the top of their lungs,” Spector says. “It’s at the level of genocide in terms of political leaders and human rights activists, especially in Chihuahua.”

Spector’s combination of public outreach, activism and dogged lawyering has sparked death threats from criminals, yet that hasn’t deterred him. Spector has more than 50 asylum cases pending. He’s already won four important ones, including asylum for Saul Reyes Salazar, a community activist in the Juarez Valley who lost six family members in the drug war (see “The Deadliest Place In Mexico“). Reyes says Spector helped save his and his remaining family’s lives.

“In Mexico we could not sleep, we could not go out. We lived always with the uncertainty of not knowing how much longer we might live,” Reyes says. “We are alive thanks to his good will.”