Asylum for High-Profile Mexican Police Chief Marisol Valles Is No Sure Thing in Dallas

Marisol Valles became an instant media star last October, when she took over as police chief of Práxedis G. Guerrero, a town near Juarez. She was just 20 years old, a criminology student and a mother, and the job she was taking only opened up when her predecessor was beheaded.

Two weeks ago, she made a fresh wave of headlines when she was fired for abandoning her post: After a series of threats on her life, she'd crossed the border to seek asylum in the U.S.

That news was often covered as a disappointing bookend to her inspirational tale -- and a few days later, Chihuahua governor Cesar Duarte came out and said what plenty of other bloggers had already suggested: that Valles only took the job for a ticket to asylum in the U.S.

But even for high-profile Mexican cops like Valles, asylum is all too often a losing bet here in the U.S. -- as Chris Vogel and I reported last fall in the Paper Version of Unfair Park. As we pointed out then, fewer than 2 percent of asylum claims from Mexico were granted from 2005 to 2009, well below the 45 percent average for all countries combined.

Some of the toughest judges in the system are just downtown at Commerce and Griffin -- and that could be bad news for Valles. While American press only reported she was "in hiding" after crossing the border at Fort Hancock, Fox News' Spanish-language Efe said Valles was "waiting to appear before an immigration judge in Dallas," citing Gustavo De la Rosa Hickerson, a prominent Human Rights Commission official in Chihuahua. Other Spanish-language outlets have also since said Valles is waiting for her turn before one of the four immigration judges based here.

Valles's attorneys, understandably, don't seem too interested in coming forward to talk about their case right now. But it's worth recalling the Jose Alarcon, an ex-cop from Juarez whose asylum claim here in Dallas was denied last December.

Attorney Will Humble is handling Alarcon's appeal, and says Judge James Nugent didn't seem to believe the high-profile nature of Alarcon's job, or the publicity he'd gotten from his case, made him a special case. "Our position is that it became a high-profile case, and the judge's posiotion was, 'No, policemen face danger'" all the time, Humble says, that "this is not persecution, this is just the dangerous life of a policeman."

"I have seen a radical difference between judges in other cities," Humble says, but not among the judges in Dallas -- one of whom would be handling Valles' case. "These are four male judges -- they are middle-age to older, they've all been doing this for a long time." Humble says it's tougher to make an appeal for a client's special circumstances to a judge who hears the same sad stories every day -- and these guys, Humble says, "tend to see the same type of case."

If Valles's case is heard here in Dallas, it'll be handled by one of those four, possibly Nugent, an Alberto Gonzales appointee transferred to Dallas from Louisiana last year -- where he was once vice chairman of the state Republican Party. Judges Richard Ozmun and Dietrich Sims have been two of the tougher judges in the country over the last few years, while Judge Michael Baird is a relatively new appointee, a former police officer who joined the court in 2009.

I checked back in touch with Marfa immigration lawyer Steve Spurgin, who'd been a source of mine last August, and he told me not much has changed since then, when it comes to how the asylum system treats claims from Mexico.

"By and large, immigration judges are pretty good across the U.S.," Spurgin says, though "There are a few that are political appointees that I have questions about."

The greater issue, Spurgin says, is that immigration judges remain incredibly overworked, and the federal government still isn't interested in treating Mexico as the failed state he says it is.

"You take the facts from a police officer in Iran, the same identical everything," Spurgin says, "the Iranian wins and the Mexican loses. That's the problem. Because our country sees those nations differently."

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Patrick Michels
Contact: Patrick Michels