EL PASO — One of his clients, a Mexican waitress and widowed mother of three, says she played dead under a pile of bodies to survive a massacre in Ciudad Juarez led by men she recognized as federal police.
Another client says Chihuahua state police hacked off his feet after he refused to pay them bribes.
They came to El Paso seeking Carlos Spector, 58, a burly, hard-charging immigration attorney who has developed a strange specialty in this Texas border city. His clients, instead of crossing into the United States illegally and hiding out, are seeking asylum.
To the dismay of conservative critics in the U.S. who call asylum seekers "narco refugees" and some officials in Mexico who call them "traitors," Spector has been trying to broaden the definition of asylum, a status granted to those fleeing persecution in their home countries. He calls them "exiles."
Compared with those fleeing other countries, relatively few Mexicans have been granted asylum. Still, the number of applications has risen rapidly and reflects, Spector says, the collapse of order in parts of Mexico.
Typical of his clients is Gabriela, 39, who was working as a secretary at the police department in the border town of Guadalupe in 2008 when she and her colleagues started receiving death threats. Some threats — possibly by drug cartels, but Gabriela was never sure — were carried out.
"They started killing them, one by one," she said.
Gabriela, who asked to be identified only by first name to protect her family, fled in 2010 with her husband and daughters, ages 17 and 9.
"If I go back, they'll kill me. And not just me, my family," she said.
Some of Spector's clients have been threatened on the streets of El Paso. So has Spector. The son of an American father and Mexican mother from Guadalupe, he is hard to miss with his red hair and beard.
Last year, a red SUV pulled up alongside Spector's car in front of what serves as his office, a mint green house in a working-class neighborhood. The man behind the wheel, all in black, leaned over his female passenger and pointed a gun at Spector.
"You've taken enough cases," he said in Spanish. The woman grinned.
Spector, a barrel-chested Air Force veteran who grew up in El Paso and spent years organizing illegal immigrant workers in Texas, was not deterred. He and his staff are juggling about 50 political asylum cases and taking on more, mostly from Chihuahua state.
Violence escalated in the Chihuahua's largest city, Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, after the Mexican government sent in troops to combat drug cartels in 2008.
As cartel violence increased in Mexico, so did requests for asylum. Such requests can basically be made in two ways, and the method often reflects the resources and circumstances of the applicant.
Some applicants seek asylum "affirmatively," meaning they already have entered the United States, sometimes with a border crossing card, and then approach U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Last fiscal year, 4,042 Mexicans sought asylum this way, more than triple the number of applications five years earlier. During the same period, the agency approval rate increased slightly — to 9% from 7%.
People may also seek asylum "defensively." A defensive claim is made when a person seeks asylum at a port of entry — such as a bridge or airport — or if the person is picked up for entering the country illegally and faces proceedings in immigration court. In the last fiscal year, 6,133 Mexicans sought asylum defensively, up from 4,510 the year before, according to U.S. Justice Department figures.
Experts say this method is more adversarial because the asylum seeker is often fighting in immigration court hoping to avoid deportation.
In fiscal years 2007 through 2011, U.S. immigration courts received 21,104 defensive asylum claims from Mexicans. During the same time period, 2% of such Mexican asylum applications were granted. By contrast, out of all U.S. asylum applicants during the same period, about 24% were granted.
Among the top 25 nationalities granted asylum, Chinese often top the list. Last fiscal year, Mexicans ranked 23rd — the first time they made the list in five years.
U.S. officials say Mexican asylum applicants are reviewed like any others.
Timothy Counts, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that each asylum applicant must show "credible fear," defined as "a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion."
Decades ago, political asylum was seen as "something for people fleeing wars: Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile," Spector said. For Mexicans, he said, it was tough to make a case and easier "to just come and stay with your cousins."
Then in the late 1980s, he met Ernesto Poblano.
Poblano was mayor of the Mexican border city of Ojinaga, southeast of El Paso. After he identified government officials as drug traffickers, the Chihuahua governor accused him of being a drug trafficker, and Poblano fled to the U.S. With Spector's help, he won asylum in 1991, one of the first Mexicans to do so.
"Carlos very much takes on these matters from a human rights perspective, and he has been successful in some cases where many would think he would not be," said Kathleen Walker, El Paso-based past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. She called Spector "a true crusader in trying to push the asylum envelope."
Spector argues that his clients are at risk because the Mexican government cannot or will not protect them.
Each asylum case can involve multiple people and take years to resolve. Out of 76 asylum applications Spector handled since 2008, only five have been granted, covering 15 people. None of his cases have been denied, though a few applicants have given up and returned to Mexico.
Among Spector's successes is the case of activist Saul Reyes Salazar, 46, a former city secretary in Guadalupe, who was granted asylum in January along with his wife and three children after several members of his politically active family were threatened and killed — by cartel members and corrupt Mexican soldiers, he alleges. Since 2010, more than 30 members of his family have fled to the U.S., many seeking asylum.
Alejandro Hernandez Pacheco, 45, a cameraman for the Mexico City-based network Televisa, was also granted asylum last year after he and his crew were kidnapped while covering problems at a prison in Durango in 2010, a crime he alleged the Mexican government helped the Sinaloa cartel carry out.
A Mexican government official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak, acknowledged security problems in northern Mexico, particularly in Chihuahua and Tamaulipas states: "We know there are cases where people have been abused by police and the military, and we are dealing with them."
"We don't know the reasons for all people asking for asylum, but we do know people are leaving for violence-related reasons. We're not denying that. We face challenges and vulnerabilities," he said. "Our loss is your gain, in many ways — we don't want to lose young people, entrepreneurial people to go and live in another country."
He pointed to judicial reforms in Mexico that could increase prosecutions, but said it's difficult to hold officials accountable when victims flee.
U.S. immigration officials and government attorneys have argued that some of Spector's clients do not qualify for asylum — that they're no more persecuted than anyone else in Mexico.
"What this attempts to do is to stretch the definition" of asylum, said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the conservative, Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform. "The history has been once people realize there is an avenue of getting into the United States, if you say certain magic words, everyone starts using that."
As Counts, the citizenship and immigration spokesman, noted, violent conditions can support an asylum application, but "violence alone is not sufficient to qualify for asylum."
Jose Alberto Holguin crossed to El Paso from Juarez last year with Spector's help after his 26-year-old son was gunned down at a bar in 2009. Holguin, whose family runs a bus company, says the attack was punishment after he refused to pay bribes to La Linea, a gang working with the Juarez cartel that has included corrupt police.
"We're not people trying to take advantage of this country's system," Holguin, 50, said. "Most of the people seeking asylum here in the U.S. suffered a tragedy. There are those who have lost more than us — three, four sons."