Montiel Seeks Asylum in the United States
When EDLC was asked in 2005 to obtain pro bono legal representation for Montiel in his effort to obtain asylum in the United States, the call for help went out immediately.
Lawyers from the firm of Heller Ehrman had twice before worked on cases of persecuted Mexican anti-logging activists. The first such case was that of Isidro Baldenegro, the Tarahumara activist who- like Montiel- had faced fabricated drug and weapons charges. The firm had helped obtain freedom for Baldenegro, who also went on to win the Goldman Environmental Prize. The second case was that of Felipe Arreaga, Montiel’s fellow OCESP member, who had been acquitted at trial of fabricated murder charges.
The Asylum Claim
The legal team from Heller Ehrman, led by attorney Sean Sullivan, prepared to argue that under the Immigration and Nationalities Act, Montiel qualified for “refugee” status. The lawyers believed that because Montiel was unable to return to Mexico due to “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of… membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” he was legally entitled to asylum in the United States.
While Montiel’s claim presented both a factually and legally compelling case, the novelty of the situation posed a clear challenge. Sullivan and his colleagues set out to prove that the evidence clearly established that as a direct result of his environmental activism, Montiel was being persecuted in Mexico. To EDLC’s knowledge, the United States had never previously been presented with a claim for asylum based on persecution due to one’s environmental activism.
Will the United States Agree?
Over the following months, the lawyers and Montiel worked together closely to document the facts of his case. Extensive materials were presented for consideration by the officer hearing the case.
In July 2006, a day-long hearing was conducted before an Asylum Officer, at which Rodolfo Montiel testified extensively on his own behalf. The hearing went well, but the decision awaited final approval. Month after agonizing month went by, with still no word on the government’s decision.
Finally, on August 27, 2007, the government’s decision was announced. Rodolfo Montiel had been granted asylum in the United States.
Mexico found liable
In December 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Mexican government had violated the human rights of Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, including their rights to personal integrity, liberty, due process, and judicial protection. The case had been brought to the Inter-American human rights system ten years earlier, due to the lack of legal remedies at the domestic level. EDLC submitted Amicus Curiae briefs on behalf of Montiel and Cabrera both before the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights.
The 2010 judgment condemned the Mexican government to pay reparations to the victims, as well as to provide for the costs of their medical treatment. Additionally, the Court ordered Mexico to conduct an investigation of the facts related to the torture of the activists, and to reform the Code of Military Justice so as to prevent human rights violations by the military conducting trials in military courts in cases (such as this) in which it lacks jurisdiction. Finally, the Court ruled that the incriminatory evidence obtained under torture should never have been considered by the Mexican criminal justice system. The Mexican government has stated its commitment to enforcing the Court’s judgment.
- Rodolfo Montiel, in a letter from the Iguala prison
New York Times advertisement calling for Rodolfo Montiel's release