Colin Powell visits Colombia in support of Plan Colombia.

Immigration fueled by drug-related violence and lawlessness is not unprecedented.

Over the past decade, thousands of Colombians have sought asylum in the United States as the U.S. government sent billions of dollars to South America to attack coca production. The aid package, known as Plan Colombia, has been widely compared to the more recent Merida Initiative, another U.S.-funded plan approved last year by Congress and directed to fight drug smuggling in Mexico and Central American countries. The first round of funding — $297 million — was released late last year, and another $99 million was released last month. A total of $1.4 billion has been pledged by the U.S. government.

Refugee groups have pushed hard for temporary protected status to Colombians, said Mark Hetfield of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the director of a 2005 study on asylum seekers for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Temporary protected status allows immigrants to reside in the U.S., but not permanently. The Bush administration refused such requests.

Safe haven has been granted to people from Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador living in the U.S. who don’t qualify as refugees but are fleeing natural disasters or other catastrophes, as long as it’s in U.S. national interest. Colombians had little success in gaining refugee status at first, too, Hetfield said.     The possibility of persecution “didn’t fit the drug war when our understanding was not as sophisticated,” Hetfield said. “But as immigration judges became more familiar with what was happening in Colombia, they realized these are political opinion cases.” For much of the last decade Colombia has had the second highest number of asylees, after China.

While Hetfield said the situation between the two countries—a stable Mexican government versus a once shaky Colombian democracy battling revolutionary forces funded by the drug trade—is definitely different, the comparison between the two countries is more lemons to oranges than apples to oranges.

“In Mexico, it’s police involvement in the drug trade that creates fear of retaliation of police. It’s also an imputed political opinion.  It’s not the FARC (the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) versus the government,” Hetfield said, adding said it is debatable whether the United States has a responsibility to accept Mexican refugees because of its involvement in the war on drugs. The problem in Mexico is “renegade government forces that can’t be controlled by the federal government.”

A State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity disputed any comparison between Mexico and Colombia in terms of country conditions. He said, however, the reason for the spike in Colombian asylum cases over the past decade could be similar to what’s happening in Mexico today.

“When the central government in both cases tries to address the root problems—lawlessness and corruption in Mexico and no state control at all in Colombia—it kicks up a backlash by the parties used to operating almost in a vacuum … Then things get messy until the state prevails,” the official said, adding that Colombia is much more in control today than it was a decade ago. “Our hope is that Mexico feels the same way in two or three years’ time.”

Andrew Becker’s article “Mexico’s Drug War Creates New Class of Refugees” ran in the Los Angeles Times. See the complete Times investigation: “Mexico Under Siege.”

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.