Spotlighting a case already charged with political intrigue, the Justice Department has withdrawn the political-asylum status extended two years ago to the family of the man convicted of assassinating Mexican presidential candidate Jose Donoldo Colosio.
The turnabout, unprecedented in the experience of several immigration experts following the case, was initiated by attorneys with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The agency sought to move forward with a deportation order at a federal immigration court hearing in Los Angeles last week, but were rebuffed by Judge Nathan W. Gordon, who had initially granted asylum to the family.
Gordon looked visibly angry Monday during a brief confrontation with INS attorneys in his small, overcrowded courtroom. The INS was seeking to set a date for deporting the family of Mario Aburto, now serving a 40-year prison sentence in the Colosio shooting, but Gordon insisted that jurisdiction lay with the Board of Immigration Appeals, the highest administrative body within the immigration-court system.
"I'm not setting a date," said Gordon."I don't have the file."
"Your honor, then I ask you, open a new tape and hear the case," insisted INS Assistant District Counsel Patricia Corrales.
I told you I won't hear the case," Gordon shot back. "The board has jurisdiction, not me."
"Your honor, for the record I would like to say I'm opposed to your position," Corrales answered.
"I don't care," Gordon said, rising from the bench. "I'm not going on the record. I'm not calling this case up." Gordon then gathered up his papers and walked out of the courtroom.
INS officials in Washington declined to discuss their reasons for challenging the status of the Aburto family, but conceded that such appeals are "very rare." This has prompted speculation as to possible pressure from Mexico.
"I think the Mexican Government is placing pressure on the U.S. Government to deny this asylum claim," says Robert Benson, a professor of international human-rights law at Loyola Law School. "By granting the Aburto family asylum, the U.S is creating a situation that is a slap in the face to Mexico, because it says the family can't get adequate protection [there]. So I think Mexico must be lobbying very hard to get this asylum decision reversed."
Mexican officials have refused to comment on the case, and Ambassador Jesus F. Reyes-Heroles, while on a visit to Los Angeles last week, declined to say whether his government had intervened.
The fate of the Aburto family became an international issue with the slaying of Colosio in Tijuana in 1994. Mario Aburto was arrested and convicted soon after, and while his father was already a permanent resident of the U.S., Aburto's mother, Maria Luisa Martinez, and six siblings were living just across the border.
Two months after the shooting, the Aburtos climbed a fence near the Tijuana River levee and turned themselves over to Border Patrol agents, requesting asylum. Judge Gordon ruled in their favor after hearing how the Aburtos had been struck and repeatedly threatened by Mexican police, and how the mother and daughter had been forced to strip themselves naked, then paraded before their guards. Gordon agreed in a ruling that allowed Aburto's mother, four brothers and two sisters to remain in Los Angeles, where they joined Mario's father, Ruben.
From the start, the case was marked by unusual conduct on the part of both governments. Even before the asylum ruling, INS officials offered to push through a citizenship application for Ruben Aburto, which in turn would have allowed the rest of the family to emigrate under the family-reunification provisions of U.S. immigration law. Aburto frustrated the INS by declining the offer. According to Jorge Mancillas, an activist who worked with the Aburto family's legal team, "It looked to me as if the INS was trying to avoid having the judge make a ruling . . . granting the family asylum."
Later that year, in another extraordinary move, the Department of Justice subpoenaed the senior Aburto at the request of Mexican officials. Prosecutors there were investigating claims that a second gunman had been involved in the Colosio killing, as well as high-ranking officials in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Ruben Aburto refused to testify, contending that Mexican officials had isolated his son and prevented anyone from visiting him. But on August 10, 1994, accompanied by two attorneys, Aburto walked into the federal courthouse downtown to meet for more than two hours with seven Mexican federal investigators and two lawyers, including one representing his son.
Aburto and his attorneys Peter Schey and Carlos Olguin refused to answer any questions relating to Mario or the assassination. Instead, the Mexican delegation posed a series of questions that focused on a 1967 incident in which Ruben Aburto was accused of fatally shooting a man during a fight in a small town in Mexico. "The Mexican government investigators were aiming at undermining Mr. Aburto's credibility," suggests Mancillas, who sat at Aburto's side during the proceedings. "I don't think that had anything to do with why they were there, except maybe to send a message of intimidation."
Judge Gordon's 1996 decision granting the Aburto family asylum seemed to conclude the matter, as the agency rarely contests such rulings. In January, 1997, however, the INS challenged the ruling before Board of Immigration Appeals, asserting that the Aburtos did not qualify as victims of political persecution. "Rather, the respondents were the subjects of a legitimate criminal investigation involving national security," INS attorneys stated in a brief to the board.
INS officials concede that the challenge was highly unusual. "The condition [required] for us to appeal, in those very rare cases that we do it, is if we feel the judge has erred in his or her reading of the law," said an INS spokesman based in Washington, D.C.
This May, the board overturned Gordon's decision and issued a 10-page ruling in favor of the INS. The panel held that while the Aburto family has suffered "acts of violence," they could not credibly claim that they would face further persecution if returned to Mexico. The panel agreed that while the family may have been repeatedly struck and threatened by police in the days that followed the murder, "[a]n alien must do more than simply show physical abuse, or civil-rights or human-rights violations, in order to demonstrate persecution within the meaning of the Act."
Peter Schey, an attorney representing the family and an associate at the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, responded sarcastically to the ruling: "What the government is, in essence, saying is that whatever conditions they face in Mexico are just the normal by product of being the family of someone convicted of assassinating a presidential candidate."
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The U.S. deliberations on the future of the Aburto family are drawing close interest south of the border, where the Colosio assassination remains one of the defining moments of the current political era. Mexico-City journalists contacted by the Weekly said while they do not see immediate danger for the Aburtos if they are deported, many others do.
"Look, I as a Mexican believe there has been some kind of plot in the Colosio murder," says Reymundo Reva Palacio, a columnist with the daily El Financiero. "I don't think the Aburto family faces political persecution. But I think that if the family is given asylum by the U.S., the reading of that decision by the Mexican people will be that the family does face political persecution. And I think that right now popular opinion believes there is a conspiracy, and it goes so far as to [claim] that Carlos Salinas is part of that plot. That is just the conventional wisdom."
"I guess you could say that here in Mexico many people believe there is a lot more to this story," agreed Roberto Rock Lechon, editor of El Universal, a conservative Mexico City newspaper owned by a close friend of the slain candidate. "It's not unlike the Kennedy murder in your country."
In the meantime, attorneys for the Aburto family have filed an appeal in federal court. "I don't know if the Mexican government is putting pressure on the INS," said Carlos Holguin, one of the attorneys representing the family. "But I can tell you that if Mario Aburto's family is forced to return to Mexico, it will certainly put their son in a much more vunerable position, because he might fear for his family's life."