• Cries From the Golden Zone: How Immigration Policy Puts US Citizens at Risk in Mexico's Narco Wars


    (The first in a two-part series funded by the Spot.Us community.)

      “Ciudad Juárez is a shining example of how Mexico has adapted to and welcomed the dynamic changes that are taking place in the global economy.”
    U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Antonio O. Garza.  Remarks at U.S. Consulate Inaugural Ceremony, Ciudad Juárez, 7 March 2006[1]   Amalia Webber managed to “stay positive” most of the time. In a conversation just days before leaving for Ciudad Juárez, however, the bright and friendly program analyst for the state of Texas broke into tears. “If I don’t come back,” she said, “make sure you tell people what happened.”[2]   For the thousands of American citizens who, like Webber (not her real name), are married to Mexican nationals attempting to go through the immigration process in what pundits and politicians call, “the right way,” all roads lead to Juárez. That’s because the U.S. consulate there is the only one in Mexico that handles immigrant visas – the document that grants permanent legal residency.

    Alvaro and Monica, Christmas 2009

    The giant consulate is located in an upscale neighborhood known as la Zona Dorada – the Golden Zone. Judging only by the businesses close by, this could be Anytown, USA. Walk a block and you can choose between Starbucks, McDonalds, Wendy’s and Denny’s. A bit further southwest and you’re at new mall anchored by a Sears, boasting a cineplex with an IMAX® theatre, and a Total Fitness gym complete with a climbing wall.   But the sense of normalcy is an illusion. The consulate is a fortress surrounded by a moat of men in uniform carrying machine guns and stun-grenades. Just outside the Golden Zone an almost unimaginably brutal civil war rages.   Ciudad Juárez is sometimes called “The Murder Capital of the Americas”[3] – a fitting name for a city that has seen 7,000 brutal killings in under three years, with nearly 3,000 murders in 2010.[4] Just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, Juárez, with a population of a million, is ground zero in a bloody war between the Mexican government and the drug cartels that feed Americans’ craving for cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. The “narco-war” also includes ferocious turf battles between rival cartels, each group aided by corrupt military and police officials. A Mexican human rights worker described the situation in Juárez as “martial law, without the law.”[5] (Nationwide, officials put the death toll at nearly 30,000 since late 2006.[6])   Visas for travel, study or work are processed at several consulates throughout Mexico. But for many years, those seeking permanent resident status in the United States, like Amalia’s husband Roberto, have been funneled into Juárez – the killing fields of the Mexican/American drug war.   US Consulate Juarez 2009 (The U.S. Consulate in Juárez)   More than 94,000 Mexicans applied for permanent resident visas[7] at the Juárez consulate in 2009 – more than in any other country in the world. Many of them were, like Roberto, among the estimated 10-12 million undocumented aliens living in the United States. For decades, applying for permanent residency was no big deal – especially if you were married to a U.S. citizen. That’s partly because of a 1965 law that made keeping families together one of two primary factors in determining who could become a permanent resident. (The other component was based on job skills.) Most applicants already in the U.S. could fill out the forms and apply for a change of status without having to leave the country. The law was modified over time, but a sea change came in 1996. Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) was the driving force behind the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), containing several provisions to crack down on “illegals.” Congress has continued ratcheting up the pressure. Since 2001, foreigners who have been living in the U.S. illegally for a year or more, must return to their native country – and then wait for ten years before they’re eligible to apply for a change in status. The “family friendly” standard of 1965 is no longer a key consideration.   After the 2010 November mid-term elections, the process is unlikely to become less restrictive. With the House returning to Republican control, the committee that handles immigration will soon have a new chair: Texas Rep. Lamar Smith. A leading immigrant rights advocate told Politico recently that Smith is “less interested in getting in the spotlight and more interested in driving immigrants out of the country.”[8]

    Why Juárez?

    According to a State Department official speaking on condition of anonymity,[9] immigrant visas were once processed at all nine[10] U.S. consulates in Mexico. In 1988, that task was restricted to the consulates in Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana. In 1992, the Tijuana unit was closed. The reason, explained the official, was simple: streamlining operations. The changes were not restricted to Mexico.   “All countries where we have more than one consulate,” the official explained, “except where there are regional language differences, have consolidated [immigrant visa] processing in a single post.”[11]   On Internet forums devoted to immigration issues, members often speculate on why, of all cities in Mexico, they are forced to go to the “Murder Capital of the Americas.” Some see it as a plot to deter immigration from Mexico.   “This process is built to break one down,” wrote a forum member. “And most importantly, to instill fear.”[12]   State Department spokesperson, Nicole Thompson, disagrees.   “The decision was made years ago,” she pointed out in a recent interview, “before the increased drug-related violence along the border area.”[13]   And now that the city is a war zone?   “I’m not aware of plans to change the policy,” Thompson said.   On background, a spokesperson at the Juárez consulate says that the Golden Zone area is “relatively safe.” After all, the official explained, “[Visa applicants] are not the targets. The war is between the cartels and gangs.”[14]   That does little to reassure many applicants who, to reach the consulate area, must pass through many security checkpoints with soldiers wearing black ski-masks, by sections of Juárez that regularly see mass killings, and near the site of a car bomb explosion that killed three people earlier this year.   Virtually no one who has to run this gauntlet takes the idea of impunity seriously – especially after what happened in the middle of the day on March 13, 2010. Lesley Enriquez, 34, and her husband Arthur Redelfs, 35[15] (both American citizens), were leaving a child’s birthday party in Juárez with their 7-month-old daughter strapped into a car seat in their white Toyota RAV4, bearing Texas plates. Enriquez was four months pregnant. Shortly after 2 PM, a car roared up behind them and gunmen opened fire on the family. Both adults were killed; their baby daughter wasn’t hit. Ten minutes later a white Honda Pilot coming from the same birthday party was attacked by gunmen. The driver, Jorge Roberto Salcido, 37, was killed, outright. His two children sitting in the back seat, 4- and 7-years-old, were wounded but survived.[16]   In addition to attending the same birthday party, the victims had another connection. Lesley Enriquez and Salcido’s wife both worked at the U.S. consulate.   Three days after the murders, on March 16, Amalia and Roberto’s flight landed in Juárez.[17] Roberto’s interview at the consulate was scheduled for the 17th – St. Patrick Day.[18] For good luck, Amalia wore socks with large green shamrocks.[19] They stayed inside the Golden Zone at the Holiday Inn, where, Amalia noted, men with machine guns stood at the door and even the bellboy carried a 9mm sidearm. None of it made her feel safe. In fact, Amalia confessed that she was “absolutely terrified” in Juárez for several days after the interview, waiting to learn if Roberto’s application had been approved. [20]   On March 22, at 3:53 PM, from her hotel room in the Golden Zone, Amalia posted this message to an immigration forum on the Internet: “Can’t wait for this to be over.”[21] Later, she wrote: “The fear is the hardest part.”[22]
    [1] [2] Phone interview, 14 November 2010 [3] [4] US trains Mexican marines in drug war: report, (AFP) 12/5/2010, [5] Life and death in Juárez, the world's murder capital, Ed Vulliamy, The Guardian, 4 October 2009, [6] Mexico needs more U.S. help in drug wars, Sunday, October 31, 2010; 7:36 PM, Washington Post, [7]  Email from State Department official, 21 September 2010. [8]  Immigration hard-liners to lead Judiciary? By: Simmi Aujla October 26, 2010 04:42 AM EST, [9]  Email from State Department official, 22 September 2010. [10] Email from State Department officials, 21 September 2010 [11]  Email from State Department official, 22 September 2010. [12]  Email from forum member, 4 November 2010. [13] Nicole Thompson, spokesperson for State Department, phone interview, 4 August 2010 [14]  Email from State Department official, Juárez consulate, 21 September 2010 [15]  Family, friends mourn couple slain in Juárez, By Ramon Bracamontes \ El Paso Times, 03/21/2010, [16] March 14, 2010, Two Drug Slayings in Mexico Rock U.S. Consulate, NYT, [17]  Email from “Amalia Webber” 21 November 2010 [18] Forum posting, 22 March 2010 [19] “Amalia Webber,” Phone interview, 14 November 2010 [21]  Amalia Webber,” PM on forum, 4 November 2010 [22]  Amalia Webber,” PM on forum, 4 November 2010 Posted by Osha Gray Davidson on 12/13/10
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