Mexican law enforcement officials are walking into U.S. ports of entry in increasing numbers to seek political asylum, and the flow may soon become a flood as Mexico's battle with the drug cartels intensifies. Our first instinct is to welcome them, but there is more at stake than humanitarian sentiments.
The problem is that if our immigration laws are stretched to grant asylum to law enforcement personnel on the grounds that their own government cannot protect them, any Mexican threatened by these violent criminal gangs can claim the same right of asylum.
U.S. immigration law does not easily accommodate these law enforcement cases because they are fleeing threats from organized crime --- the Mexican drug cartels --- not political persecution by their government. If our laws are stretched to accept thousands of refugees from drug cartel violence, it will only exacerbate Mexico's problems.
We can sympathize with the Mexican police chief or prosecutor who lands on a cartel hit list because he will not play ball with them. The Mexican federal government seemingly cannot protect him and his family, so he flees to El Paso or Nogales and seeks asylum. The number of such asylum applications more than doubled in the first six months of 2008 compared to the same period in 2007, but very few have been approved. What will happen if we do not accept these asylum applications as a humanitarian gesture? What will happen if we do?
The rising number of asylum seekers from Mexican law enforcement and the professional classes is a new phenomenon, not merely another facet of our open borders fiasco. These people are not swimming the Rio Grande or sneaking across the Sonora desert. They are walking into our border ports of entry from Texas to California and asking for protection. We must respect them for following our laws and doing it the right way. But we must also ask some hard questions before throwing open our gates. Humanitarian concerns must be balanced against other considerations --- because the fate of Mexico hangs in that balance.
What happens to Mexico if all the good cops flee to the U.S. or Europe and the only ones left are working hand-in-glove with the criminals? What are the consequences if all the honest judges and prosecutors flee and only dishonest ones are left in charge of the courts? What happens if honest businessmen find it easy to flee to San Diego, Houston or Phoenix and only those who will do the cartels' money laundering are running the nation's trucking companies, farms, and banks?
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.