The unpleasant truth is that this new refugee problem is the sign of a deep crisis not in the Mexican economy but in the Mexican political system itself. Mexico exhibits mounting signs of a "failed state," a political system that cannot satisfy the most basic conditions of civic order such as safety in one’s streets, home, school and workplace. Failing states begin to hemorrhage people and their assets. The middle class begins to flee --- doctors, lawyers, accountants, business owners, teachers, and of course, law enforcement officials, who are the first targets of criminal organizations.
These new "civic disorder refugees" are not like the millions of unemployed or underemployed who leave Mexico to a find a job and a better life. These middle class citizens have jobs --- often good jobs by Mexican standards --- but they do not have security for themselves or their families. They would much prefer to stay in Mexico but they cannot do so safely, so they flee.
If police chiefs and judges cannot be protected from the cartels, then how can ordinary citizens feel safe? If we open the gates to everyone who has a "credible fear" of the cartels, the Border Patrol will no longer have to worry only about people jumping the fence. Thousands will be waiting in line at one of over 300 ports of entry.
This new "emigration from fear" poses an urgent challenge for Mexico. If Mexico wants to win its battle against the drug cartels, it must begin by reforming its police and criminal justice systems so that honest cops, judges and mayors --and journalists-- can do their jobs without undue fear of retaliation. To his credit, President Calderon has begun to tackle this problem.
Military operations against the cartel strongholds are probably necessary, but they can never be a substitute for a functioning criminal justice system. Mexican citizens must be able to trust the local police, and local police must be able to trust their government to protect them from gangster-terrorists.
The United States must not become an automatic escape valve for honest officials threatened by cartel violence. If that happens, Mexico will lose its most valued civil servants and become increasingly a militarized (and polarized) society.
Mexico is not yet a failed state, but if humanitarian sentiment and special interest pleadings in the U.S. block sound immigration policy --- as happens all too often in American law and politics --- we will hasten that tragic development.