New urgency to immigration reform policy

Reports of deadly violence just across the Mexican border — in Matamoros, Mier, Reynosa and other cities — are starting to appear daily on the pages of the Brownsville (Texas) Herald.

On bad days gunfire can be heard north of the border; stray bullets from one firefight even landed on the campus of the University of Texas at Brownsville last year.

What began as isolated fights between drug gangs, or between them and the Mexican military, is spilling over into Texas neighborhoods, schools and shopping centers. Increasingly, people who have nothing to do with the illegal drug trade are feeling a very genuine — and justified — fear for their safety.

This has led to a new increase in migration into this country from Mexico, after a couple of years of decreases as the recession whittled down economic opportunities.

In addition to the increase in immigration requests, more people from Mexico appear to be asking for asylum, citing their fear of persecution if they remain in, or return to, Mexico.

Initial asylum requests at U.S. ports of entry have increased but remain low; 338 people appeared at Mexican border crossings seeking asylum last year, up from 179. Asylum requests from Mexicans in U.S. immigration courts average around 3,000 a year. However, officials remain skeptical about such requests, suggesting they might be last-ditch efforts to stay in this country after other efforts have failed.

Of course, Mexico isn’t the only country where people fear for their lives. Some 60,000 foreign nationals request asylum in the United States every year; many of them are from countries where political persecution or civil war is well known. Heavy immigration from Colombia and El Salvador in recent decades are two well-known examples. Even now asylum requests stream in from Somalia, Asia and the Middle East.

Political asylum is limited to people who have been persecuted in the past or who have a justified fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political views or membership in a persecuted social group.

The situation in Mexico appears to be reaching those levels. More than 10,000 people have been killed in the drug-related violence in the past 18 months. Some people, including journalists, have been targeted by drug gangs, and dozens have been killed or kidnapped.

Lawmakers in Washington continue to dally with regard to reviewing and updating our archaic and outdated immigration policies. President Obama had promised that immigration reform would be one of his highest priorities when he was elected. Of course, he made similar promises regarding several other topics while he was courting votes, and his staff recently admitted immigration isn’t high on the president’s action list.

Still, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., say they are working on a comprehensive immigration reform bill, and hope to present it in time to bring it to a vote before the November elections.

The growing numbers of people who have justified fears of remaining in their home countries could complicate the issue, as humanitarian concerns could clash with economic realities. Despite frequent assurances from government officials that the worst is over, unemployment remains high, a fact that tends to raise anti-immigration sentiment.

But with the situation in Mexico growing more violent every day, and more and more people looking to come north just to escape the bloodshed, the senators’ work takes on a new urgency.

Let’s hope they offer something soon, so that dialog on the matter can at least begin. In a very real sense, lives hang in the balance.