A Q&A with Carlos Spector, El Paso Immigration Attorney and Human Rights Defender

Spector, who specializes in Mexican asylum cases, said he expects more human rights defenders will request asylum after border opens this month to people with travel visas.

For more than 30 years, Carlos Spector has worked as a human rights defender and immigration attorney in El Paso, Texas, where he specializes in Mexican asylum cases. For years, Mexicans fleeing persecution and political violence have viewed Spector’s law office, which he runs with his wife, Sandra, also a longtime human rights activist, as a place of refuge and hope. In 2010 the couple cofounded a nonprofit, Mexicanos en Exilio, to help bring resources and attention to the plight of Mexican human rights defenders, journalists, and other activists seeking asylum. While U.S. media coverage of the violence in Mexico has largely disappeared from the headlines, the murder rate continues to climb in Mexico, which is considered as dangerous for journalists as Syria and Afghanistan. Extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances are also on the rise with human rights leaders increasingly being targeted. In Mexico, according to Human Rights Watch, only 1.3 percent of crimes committed are ever solved, because of official corruption and a lack of resources.

This makes Spector’s job not only crucial but also extremely difficult. Typically, only a small fraction—around 5 percent—of Mexican asylum seekers win their cases. During the four years of the Trump administration, the U.S. asylum system was essentially dismantled by Stephen Miller and other anti-immigrant hardliners. These were some of the toughest times of Spector’s career. These days, Spector said, he sees a few hopeful changes on the horizon, and he is gearing up to represent more human rights defenders from Mexico as the border reopens this month.

You’ve been representing Mexican asylum seekers for decades. These cases are extremely difficult to win. Lately, there’s been an increase in undocumented Mexican border crossers, especially single adults. I imagine some of these could be asylum cases. Have you noticed any changes in the types of cases you’re getting?

I started to see whole families coming over from Mexico to seek asylum in 2008, when the military came up to Ciudad Juárez and the border and they were going after entire communities. The families themselves were being targeted to leave their homes, to leave their businesses, to leave the small towns or communities because they represented a threat to the cartel of the moment. What we’re seeing now is that the violence has increased, but it seems to be much more targeted. So we’re getting, usually, the male representative from the household, but not the entire extended family, like before.

I know that in the past you’ve had Mexican clients seeking asylum who have spent years in detention before they were released. Then it got worse under the Trump administration, which wouldn’t release them on bond at all, right?

The standards by the Board of Immigration Appeals for determining bond are that your client won’t abscond or be a threat to the community. But under Trump, judges started denying the right to a bond for all kinds of reasons: because you didn’t have an immediate relative who was going to receive you or because there wasn’t a family member, or because they didn’t make enough money. And those had never been criteria before in deciding whether to release people. At least the immigration courts are now applying the actual law again.

Are you starting to receive more Mexican asylum cases?

What’s different now is that I’m starting to get a slew of inquiries from human rights activists in the state of Guerrero. I got one from Hidalgo and from the state of Mexico. It’s probably a skewed perspective I have. And I attribute it largely to the documentary The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo. As a result of my participating in the documentary, human rights activists are seeing it throughout Mexico and they’re calling me. And so that has been good, but it also speaks, I think, to a broader sophistication of the Mexican human rights movement. There’s also now a developing group of documentary filmmakers, Mexicans, who are talking about the human rights abuses. The Marisela Escobedo documentary, along with El Guardián de la Memoria and even El Paso, have brought us quite a bit of recognition. And so now we’re at a point where we’re picking and choosing the actual cases, because remember, Mexicanos en Exilio was created to represent human rights activists, journalists, and social activists. And those are precisely the people who are calling us. But the problem was, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of them weren’t coming in until they could come in, legally.

Do you think this will change after the border opens up again to visitors on November 8?

I think there’s going to be a lot more people coming after November 8. These are people who can enter lawfully. And that’s generally going to be the lower middle class on up. I’ve had calls from women working with coalitions searching for the disappeared. They are asking how to come. Some of them don’t have family here. Some of them don’t have resources to survive economically, because the employment-authorization change made under Trump is still in place. You have to wait a year now to get a work visa rather than six months. And so it’s those kinds of tweaks that Trump made that still survive and make it difficult.

So after November 8, we’re probably going to see a lot more human rights defenders coming across to seek asylum?

Almost immediately. The biggest thing I’m seeing is that these are heavyweight human rights leaders, who before told me they weren’t going anywhere. “Nos vamos a morir en la raya” (We’re going to die trying), they’d tell me. And when I would talk to them, I would tell them, “I know it’s not for you, but just in case, if it gets to the point where it’s intolerable, then you can do this.” And the biggest thing is always, enter lawfully. And generally the first thing I tell them is, come talk to an attorney in person, or we can go see you in Juárez. But you have to understand the benefits and the risks involved in this process and the unlikeliness of prevailing. And I think that helps a lot. But yes, after the doors are open to lawful migration, I’d say we’re going to get a slew of people who come in who in the past had been reluctant to seek asylum.

What are the chances for a Mexican asylum seeker versus one from Central America?

The problem is that, you know, we’re going back to the old asylum law that has not grown with the historical, massive displacement. So you leave Guadalupe (in Mexico) because your whole family has been murdered. That’s violence, but that’s not asylum. But when you’re fleeing for your life, it’s hard to make that distinction. You shouldn’t have to. So I think that those people who have been displaced internally within Mexico are reaching their end, and same thing in Guatemala. We represent two Guatemalan Maya Ixil ancestral leaders who were stuck in Juárez for 17 months. We finally got them in, and that was probably the most solid asylum case I’ve ever had, but they were still locked up in immigration detention. So it took nearly two years of their lives. You know, after extortion and death threats in Mexico from the police, they finally made it to the United States. So the process is just a nightmare.

Were they stuck in Ciudad Juárez because of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, a.k.a. Remain in Mexico?

Yeah, they were stuck in the Remain in Mexico program. I was able to get them through once Biden had won. Nothing had even been implemented yet. But you could feel a change in the wind almost immediately. I was able to get ahold of the port director and talk to him and tell him, Look, this is a vulnerable group, which is an exemption to the MPP.

The U.S. government always tells Mexican asylum seekers, “Well, you can just move somewhere else in Mexico,” and then they deny the asylum case.

This really is the government’s trump card. A judge will say, Yes, you were harmed, yes, you were persecuted on account of political activity, but why can’t you just move somewhere else? Unlike Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras, Mexico is a big country. You can go to Mexico City, or Monterrey. You know, what makes you such a big shot that they are looking for you everywhere? If the persecutor is the military, or the Federal Police, or one of the major cartels, then you have to make that connection for the judge, that they are presumptively a national organization. But sometimes it’s a leap too far to ask them to make.

You’ve been an immigration attorney and a human rights defender for a very long time. Are you seeing any signs from the Biden administration that are giving you hope?

Biden just appointed two batches of immigration judges. For the first time ever since I’ve been doing this, I saw judges with defense backgrounds, or people who worked for immigrant nonprofits. My biggest complaint all these years with the judges is that they often come from backgrounds where they’ve been trained to deport people. And now you’re asking them to grant asylum to people? This is the first time I’ve ever seen judges appointed with a different ideology. This was a choice made by the administration, and I think it bodes very well for the future.

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