A Civil Servant in Mexico Tests U.S. on Asylum – Millions of Americans changed their racial or ethnic identity from one census to the next

A Civil Servant in Mexico Tests U.S. on Asylum

Rodrigo Cruz-Perez for The New York Times

C. Ramon Contreras Orozco is a local official in La Ruana.

By DAMIEN CAVE

Published: December 28, 2013

LA RUANA, Mexico — Jittery families cram into his tiny office here, daily. Hundreds more have appeared at the San Diego border 1,500 miles away, clutching an official-looking letter bearing his name, gambling that its description of the violence in this blistering stretch of central Mexico will help them gain asylum in the United States.

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Rodrigo Cruz-Perez for The New York Times

Isamar Gonzalez was deported to Mexico when she sought asylum, but her mother was allowed to stay in the United States to await a court date.

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Rodrigo Cruz-Perez for The New York Times

A neighbor, Amparo Zavala, left, and her daughter-in-law, Blanca Figueroa, also were deported though other relatives remained.

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The New York Times

With letters from La Ruana, many go north from Tijuana.

The letter has quickly become a document of hope for the desperate. And the writer, an obscure local official named C. Ramon Contreras Orozco, keeps delivering, creating an unusual bureaucratic tangle that is testing American asylum policy.

“I’m trying to help,” said Mr. Contreras, the jefe de tenencia, or occupancy chief, of this battle-scarred town, where a drug cartel has declared war on residents. “People keep coming, telling me: ‘I’m afraid for me and my children. I need to go.’ ”

Asylum requests along the border with Mexico are soaring: claims more than doubled to 36,000 in fiscal 2013, from 13,800 in 2012. American officials believe that Mr. Contreras’s letters were presented in nearly 2,000 of the most recent cases, turning him into a focal point for the anxiety over violence in Mexico and making his letter a case study for contentious issues on both sides of the border.

Indeed, by furiously churning out documents that highlight Mexico’s inability to protect civilians in this region of avocados, citrus and drugs, Mr. Contreras, 38 — a hefty lime farmer in his first government job — has managed both to shame his own country and to sign his way into the latest immigration feud in the United States.

“I’m just verifying reality,” Mr. Contreras said, sweating at a too-small desk in an office without air-conditioning. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”

Mexican officials have nonetheless become frustrated by attention to this agricultural area’s slide into chaos, with drug cartels battling armed self-defense groups. And in Washington, influential lawmakers, including Robert Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, are increasingly concerned that criminals are abusing the asylum process, cheating their way into the country and disappearing for at least a few years until their cases are heard.

Mr. Contreras’s efforts rouse both concerns. In the 2013 fiscal year, most of the petitions for asylum based on a “credible fear of persecution or torture” came from Central America. But of the roughly 2,500 cases that came from Mexico, Mr. Contreras estimated that nearly 80 percent of them involved his letters. Officials with the Department of Homeland Security said they considered that more or less accurate.

And each case is a riddle. Are Mr. Contreras’s assertions of the dangers here enough to give emigrating families a chance of asylum in the United States? Are the letters showing up at the San Diego border even originals?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no, immigration authorities say. The circumstances are often so murky that even members of the same family, carrying the same letter, say they have received different decisions on their requests to stay in the United States and apply for asylum.

“The letters are a product of need,” said the Rev. Manuel Amezcoa, 49, a Roman Catholic priest who works in this part of Mexico. “But the results are complicated.”

It all began in mid-March, Mr. Contreras said, when a young woman appeared in his office begging for a way to reach her grandfather in the United States. Just a few weeks earlier, on Feb. 24, residents had formed a self-defense group and publicly challenged the Knights Templar drug cartel, which led to a vicious gun battle near the town plaza just across from Mr. Contreras’s office.

The Knights Templar then made it deadly to pick or pack limes, taking away this fertile valley’s main livelihood. Gas had also become scarce because suppliers feared driving in, and the municipal president had just fled amid accusations of cartel ties, suddenly making Mr. Contreras, who used to spend much of his time certifying property transfers, all that was left of local government.

The letter, he said, was a response to desperation, hatched by him and his secretary while the young woman waited for a response. By that point, he said, it was obvious that his home state of Michoacán, which has struggled with drug war violence for nearly a decade, was no longer just lawless; it was uninhabitable.

“This is a failed state,” Mr. Contreras said. “The government can’t follow through on anything.”

Federal officials have rejected that assessment, noting that additional troops have quieted violence in some areas. But here in a part of the country that security experts now describe as Mexico’s toughest battleground in its war on organized crime, entire families have been turning to Mr. Contreras for a way out.

One resident, Amparo Zavala, 56, collected her letter from him after paying about $4. Hoping for asylum, she then traveled to Tijuana with her two grown daughters, a niece, her son and his wife. A bullet had already pierced the tin walls of her two-room home; she said she feared the next gunfight would lead to death.

But the American response was not what she expected. One of Ms. Zavala’s daughters was born mentally disabled, and, she said, at the port of entry in the San Ysidro district in California, agents pulled them apart. “Please, please, she needs me!” Ms. Zavala recalled screaming. That night was the first time she and her disabled 35-year-old daughter slept apart.

Two weeks later, after being sent to Arizona, Ms. Zavala said she was deported with a five-year ban on re-entering the United States. Her daughter-in-law was also deported, but the others remained, a decision Ms. Zavala still does not understand. “The letter was for all of us,” she said. “We were all telling the truth.”

Many other families described similar situations. Just a few blocks away, closer to the town plaza, Isamar Gonzalez described her own confusion about why her mother could stay in California for a court date more than a year away while she was rejected. “My mother has diabetes,” she said. “Maybe that’s it?” Probably not, Ms. Zavala added: “I have diabetes, too.”

Homeland Security officials emphasize that the asylum process has always been complicated, with officers scrutinizing a range of evidence to determine whether applicants meet the legal standard of a “credible fear,” which typically allows them to stay in the country freely while their asylum case proceeds to a judge. There are also safeguards and background checks, Homeland Security officials said, to keep out the criminals and fraud that Mr. Goodlatte has said are becoming a bigger part of the system.

“Credible fear determinations are dictated by longstanding statute, not an issuance of discretion,” said Peter Boogaard, a Homeland Security spokesman.

Most asylum claims are ultimately not granted. In 2012, only 1 percent of the requests from Mexico were granted — 126 people, a fraction of the 482,000 immigrants who received legal residency.

But with different asylum officers making the initial “credible fear” decisions after interviews, the early results vary. And here in a region with a long history of emigration, even the possibility of asylum feeds rumors and dreams. In town after town where cartel gunmen have set buses on fire, cut electricity and filled mass graves, the letter amounts to printed hope. Most people who left with them have not come back, Mr. Contreras said, fueling a sense that the effort is working.

That appears to have spawned a copying industry. American officials say some immigrants have recently reported paying about $75 for the letter. When Mr. Contreras was shown two versions of his letter presented at the border, with different signatures, he immediately identified one as a fraud.

“A lot of people are selling these, or so I’ve heard, but for me, it’s just a way to help,” he said. He then rose from his desk and returned with a manila folder containing a random sampling of the letters he has signed.

The early versions were general, describing a “wave of violence and insecurity” that flooded the area after the February clash between residents and the cartel. Later versions were more specific, usually at the request of the family, he said. One letter from mid-November, for example, explained that the parents of a child named Leticia were sending her north alone to apply for asylum and live with relatives “until the danger passes.”

As word has spread, the geographic span has also widened. Shortly before Mr. Contreras retrieved the folder, two new requests arrived: a man came from a town in Jalisco state known as a way station for the Knights Templar; another came from a town nearby where a pregnant official had reportedly been killed the night before.

One was planning to flee north with his entire family. The other would be traveling alone. “His wife and children are already there,” Mr. Contreras said. “They left months ago with the letter.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 12, 2014

An article on Dec. 29 about C. Ramon Contreras Orozco, a civil servant in a violent area of central Mexico whose effort to help his countrymen gain asylum across the border is testing American asylum policy, referred imprecisely to the outcome of claims by Mexicans seeking asylum in the United States. While most claims are never granted, that happens because they are either withdrawn, abandoned, rejected by a judge or otherwise moved into a different category of the claims process; the reason for the low approval rate is not because most asylum claims ultimately are rejected by a judge.

A version of this article appears in print on December 29, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Civil Servant In Mexico Tests U.S. on Asylum.

May 5, 2014

Millions of Americans changed their racial or ethnic identity from one census to the next

By D’Vera Cohn

Millions of Americans counted in the 2000 census changed their race or Hispanic-origin categories when they filled out their 2010 census forms, according to new research presented at the annual Population Association of America meeting last week. Hispanics, Americans of mixed race, American Indians and Pacific Islanders were among those most likely to check different boxes from one census to the next.

The researchers, who included university and government population scientists, analyzed census forms for 168 million Americans, and found that more than 10 million of them checked different race or Hispanic-origin boxes in the 2010 census than they had in the 2000 count. Smaller-scale studies have shown that people sometimes change the way they describe their race or Hispanic identity, but the new research is the first to use data from the census of all Americans to look at how these selections may vary on a wide scale.

“Do Americans change their race? Yes, millions do,” said study co-author Carolyn A. Liebler, a University of Minnesota sociologist who worked with Census Bureau researchers. “And this varies by group.”

Why? There are many possibilities, although the researchers did not present any hard conclusions. By some measures, the data provide more evidence of Americans’ puzzlement about how the census asks separately about race and ethnicity. (The Census Bureau is considering revising its race and ethnicity questions for the next census, in 2020, in hopes of matching better how Americans think about this topic.) But there could be other reasons, too, such as evolving self-identity or benefits associated with being identified with some groups.

The Census Bureau granted the researchers restricted access to confidential data in return for a legally binding promise that they would not reveal details of any individual responses, and they produced their estimates by matching 2000 and 2010 census forms for the same people. Though they were able to analyze data for more than half the U.S population (and most of the 281 million counted in 2000), the amount of category-changing might be even higher in the total population, they said.

People of every race or ethnicity group altered their categories on the census form, but some groups had more turnover than others. Relatively few people who called themselves non-Hispanic white, black or Asian in 2000 changed their category in 2010, Liebler said. Responses by Hispanics dominated the total change, she said, but there was major turnover within some smaller race groups as well.

The largest number of those who changed their race/ethnicity category were 2.5 million Americans who said they were Hispanic and “some other race” in 2000, but a decade later, told the census they were Hispanic and white, preliminary data showed. Another 1.3 million people made the switch in the other direction. Other large groups of category-changers were more than a million Americans who switched from non-Hispanic white to Hispanic white, or the other way around.

Hispanics account for most of the growing number and share of Americans who check “some other race” on the census form. Many do not identify with a specific racial group or think of Hispanic as a race, even though it is an ethnicity in the federal statistical system. Census officials added new instructions on the 2010 census form stating that Hispanic ethnicity is not a race in an attempt to persuade people to choose a specific group. (That change, as well as other wording edits in the instructions to respondents between 2000 and 2010 may be one reason some people switched. The order of the questions and the offered categories did not change.) The Census Bureau is also testing a new race and Hispanic question that combines all the options in one place, rather than asking separately about race and Hispanic origin.

More than 775,000 switched in one direction or the other between white and American Indian or only white, according to preliminary data. A separate paper presented at the conference reported “remarkable turnover” from 2000 to 2010 among those describing themselves as American Indian. Ever since 1960, the number of American Indians has risen more rapidly than could be accounted for by births or immigration.

There also was considerable change within a decade’s time among some smaller race groups. For example, only one-third of Americans who checked more than one race in 2000 kept the same categories in 2010, according to preliminary data. Only two-thirds of non-Hispanic single-race Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders kept the same categories.

Previous research on people’s racial self-identification has found that they may change categories for many reasons, said demographer Sharon Lee of the University of Victoria in Canada, at the population conference. The question mode—whether people are asked in person, on a paper form, on the phone or online—makes a difference. Some people may change their category after they find out they had an ancestor of a different race, she said. Or they may decide there are benefits (such as priority in college admissions) to including themselves in a certain group.

Some category-changers were children in 2000 whose race was filled in by their parents, but by 2010 were old enough to choose for themselves, which may account for some of the change. Children in some groups in 2000—for example, white and black—were especially likely to be recorded in a different category in 2010, Liebler said. (Although she did not mention President Barack Obama, he chose to check only “black” on his 2010 census form, even though his mother was white and father black.)

Lee and Liebler said researchers need to account for the amount of change in people’s racial and Hispanic self-description in their work, but Lee cautioned that they should not overreact. “There is not a trivial amount of change,” she said, “but it’s not across every group.”

The analysis was done under a Census Bureau program to allow limited access to its confidential data for specific studies of important issues by outside researchers who agree not to reveal any personally identifying information about individuals. In this case, researchers did not have access to individual names, dates of birth or other personal information, because each person’s linked 2000 and 2010 forms were identified by a numerical code called a “personal identification key.”

The researchers only included in their analysis people living in households where someone in the family filled in their race or Hispanic origin. They excluded people whose details were supplied by neighbors or imputed by the Census Bureau, and those living in group quarters, such as college dormitories or prisons. They also dropped anyone who checked “some other race” and an additional race in 2000, because that category had an unusual amount of processing error. The researchers said the people they matched were not nationally representative.

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