A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a young Mexican police sheriff — Marisol Valles — who had fled her post in one of the country’s most dangerous regions to seek asylum in the U.S. While it’s clear that Valles certainly is one of many people to be in that situation, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) recently released a report which sheds some light on the number of people who are coming to the U.S. from Latin America as a result of drug cartel violence in the region.
According to the report, “by the end of 2010, as many as 5.4 million people were internally displaced due to armed conflict, violence, and human rights violations in the Americas.” In comparison, 3.9 million were displaced in the Middle East at the end of the year largely due to armed conflicts. The IDMC claims that, in Mexico alone, about 230,000 people have been displaced because of drug violence. While approximately 115,000 of those Mexicans were internally displaced within the country, the IDMC notes that the other half of those displaced “crossed the border into the United States.” These figures don’t include the Central American nation of Guatemala, which is also experiencing high levels of violence.
Meanwhile, those who seek asylum face an uphill battle. In order to qualify, asylum applicants must prove “credible fear” based on their membership in a social, political, religious, or ethnic group that has been targeted for persecution. While asylum applicants who are fleeing Latin America’s drug violence can usually prove they have a good reason to fear for their lives, persecution is difficult to establish. Less than two percent of the 3,800 Mexican asylum petitions were approved last year.
While some legal experts are advocating for a broader set of asylum criteria, the courts have been slow to respond and it seems unlikely that all 115,000 displaced people would meet even the most expansive asylum standards that have been discussed. Others have suggested lobbying the federal government to grant drug war victims “Temporary Protected Status,” a temporary immigration status that is available to individuals from a small number of federally-designated countries suffering armed conflicts, natural disasters, or other extraordinary circumstances. However, that option is highly controversial.
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) also released a report this week which warns, “the unchecked power and violence of these Mexican DTOs [drug trafficking organizations] present a substantial humanitarian concern and have contributed to forced migration and numerous U.S. asylum requests. If the situation were to worsen, a humanitarian emergency might lead to an unmanageable flow of people into the United States.” According to CFR, the U.S. bears part of the responsibility “given that U.S. drug consumption, firearms, and cash have fueled much of Mexico’s recent violence.” They recommend “bolster[ing] U.S. domestic law enforcement efforts to curb illicit drug distribution, firearms smuggling, and money laundering” and making “an overall commitment to preventing and treating drug abuse and other societal ills caused by drugs and reevaluate the effectiveness of current U.S. and international drug policies.”
Ultimately, it’s probably safe to say that many — if not most — of the immigrants coming to the U.S. are driven by economics more than the drug war. Yet, as the drug-related violence in Latin America escalates, dealing with migration to the North may start to require addressing U.S. drug and gun policies along with the nation’s broken immigration system itself.