On election night in 2016, Carlos Spector turned off the TV as soon as the networks called it. He shifted on the couch toward his wife, Sandra, and said, “We’re fucked, honey.” The next morning he awoke at 4:30 like always and drove across El Paso to the two-story law office with his name out front. The mahogany desk upstairs was littered with case files. As he sat in front of the large windows that overlooked the border, he asked himself, What are we going to do? Soon attorneys all along the US-Mexico line called him asking that same question, because he was Carlos Spector, and surely he had a plan.
His plan, he said, was to wait.
Spector specializes in arguing asylum cases with the worst odds, and after working for nearly 30 years in one of the country’s strictest immigration courts, he’d learned the value of patience. Sometimes it was only a matter of finding the right client, like in the early 1990s, when he represented a border-town mayor who, threatened by machine politicians, became one of the first Mexicans to win asylum in the modern era. Since then, Spector had become something of a border celebrity. Sandra complains to this day that they can’t go to a restaurant without someone—a local who Spector helped with her papers, a newcomer refugee—yelling, “¡Abogado! ¡Abogado!”—Lawyer! Lawyer! Many people still recognize him from the early 2000s, when his firm rented an hour of TV time on a cross-border station, between the telenovelas, answering immigration questions for free. “If you want to throw your money away, give it to me,” he’d joke. “At least I’ll tell you the truth.” The program generated steady clients, as well as the cases he craved: those that would force the United States to accept the violent realities immigrants were fleeing.
But by the time Donald Trump’s “Build the Wall!” campaign was barreling toward Election Day, it was clear that the ground was shifting beneath Spector’s feet. For the first time in its 49-year history, the Border Patrol union had backed a presidential candidate in a primary. The local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office stopped taking meetings with Spector. Five days after Trump’s inauguration, he ordered the construction of a border wall, signing an executive order to reshape the immigration system.
So Spector, then 62, waited. Tongue cancer and chemotherapy in 2012 had diminished him by 50 pounds, thinned his red beard, and for a time hushed his voice to a whisper. But the thought of challenging the new administration invigorated him. Ten days after Trump swore the oath of office, Spector’s paralegal opened an email that read: “Good afternoon, my name is Martín Méndez Pineda, from Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico, and a few months ago I was threatened by the federal police of the gendarmerie division for my work as a reporter with the newspaper Novedades Acapulco.”
The next week, Spector met Méndez Pineda on a chilly Sunday morning in Ciudad Juarez. Méndez Pineda was 25, though he looked like a teenager. Soft cheeks. Dimples. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Spector told him as they approached the American side of the border. “But you may be locked up. Are you going to be able to withstand detention?” Méndez Pineda nodded.
When they arrived at the glass bank of windows at the Customs and Border Protection building, Spector called to an agent to see which line was for asylum seekers.
“What country is he from?” the agent asked. When Spector gave the answer, the agent questioned why any Mexican would fear to return. “Look,” Spector said, “I don’t want to get into a political discussion with you.”
The agent studied his face.
“I know who you are,” Spector remembers him saying. “Spector, the great American hater.”
Spector calls himself a “pocho,” an Americanized Mexican. He was born in El Paso back when there were virtually no fences. Each summer he played near cotton fields along the Rio Grande in his mother’s hometown of Guadalupe, Mexico, where the customs building was a small kiosk. She’d met his father, a Jew from Brooklyn, when he got in a car accident near the border while driving cross-country with friends to mine for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.
In Mexico, Spector was the red-headed American. In El Paso, his friends pantsed him because they’d never seen a circumcised penis. He was always proud of his Jewish heritage, and after he served in the Air Force, Spector lived for a year in Israel. When he thought of the division between the Israelis and the Palestinians, he told me, he was reminded of home.
He met Sandra after he returned to El Paso in the early ’80s. Sandra came out of the Chicano rights movement and organized migrants with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. But it took Spector a while to find his place. He was rejected by every law school he applied to except Texas Southern University in Houston, where he enrolled with his father, a postal inspector with a geology degree who’d always dreamed of becoming an attorney. In school, Spector worked for a member of Congress, then was fired after he and Sandra shouted legal advice to migrants during a workplace raid. He couldn’t hack it as a county prosecutor, either. He’d get a case, maybe a truck driver who blew a couple points over the legal drinking limit, and he’d think of how a DUI could destroy the guy’s life—or, worse, his family’s. “My heart wasn’t in it,” he says.
Spector crossed to Juarez often, and he remembers seeing Central Americans crowding the bridge—mostly poor families escaping US-backed dictators and civil wars. When he was a child, his father’s friends told stories of fighting in World War II and of the atrocities they witnessed. “My father’s greatest lesson to me was that it was important to defend the other and the weak,” Spector says.
Eventually, something clicked. He started an immigration radio program, then the TV spots modeled on Sandra’s “know your rights” campaigns from her union work. He rented an office. But notoriety had its costs. A local conservative radio host took an interest in Spector, riling listeners by comparing the rising number of undocumented immigrants to an infestation of cockroaches. One day, Spector arrived at work to find his wooden porch half-destroyed. He moved to a larger office, with an iron railing and a barred front door.
In 1989, Spector met Ernesto Poblano, whose case would become his first big break. The Mexican mayor had escaped death threats from his opponents in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which by then had ruled the country uninterrupted for six decades. Spector convinced a legislator from the state of Chihuahua to testify in US immigration court, a tactic that was unheard of at the time. “I’m convinced,” the lawmaker said, that if Poblano ever returned to Mexico, “we would be attending his funeral.” Spector would win the case in what the New York Times later proclaimed “a major shift after many years in which virtually all asylum applications from Mexicans were routinely rejected.”
Poblano’s claim was successful because Spector tied a direct threat to corrupt powers in the government, which fit the American interpretation of asylum. The 1980 Refugee Act allows people who have been persecuted based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group to remain in the United States as long as they can prove they have a well-founded fear of returning to their home countries. But the application of asylum law has always been highly politicized. During the Cold War, the United States welcomed Cubans, Chinese, Vietnamese, and people fleeing the Soviet Union, but labeled most Latin Americans as economic migrants ineligible for asylum—even as our proxy wars against communism forced hundreds of thousands of Central Americans to flee from their homes. Until 2017, the United States accepted any Cuban who set foot on American soil. To this day, 73 percent of Chinese asylum seekers win their cases. But just 16 percent of Central Americans convince judges to let them stay. For Mexicans, it’s 11 percent.
Judges tend to deny most Mexican and Salvadoran asylum seekers in part because they’re not fleeing the classic type of political persecution; they’re escaping organized crime in countries with democratically elected governments. But Spector sees a glaring hole in the logic of our current system. These are countries, he believes, that are so corrupt, so weakened by criminal organizations, that no distinction exists between crime and government, to the point where the state’s failure to provide safety is a form of political persecution. “There’s no such thing as organized crime,” Spector says. “It’s authorized crime”—and Méndez Pineda was a perfect example.
The Acapulco that Méndez Pineda knew was not the resort city of cliff jumpers or shrimp tacos by the bay. His grandmother raised him in a barrio called Renaissance, one of the poorest, most violent neighborhoods in the city. “There is a saying here,” Méndez Pineda says, “that if you grow up surrounded by wolves, you can survive anywhere.”
Murders hummed at a familiar pace for most of his childhood. Then, in 2010, federal police arrested a leader in the Beltrán Leyva drug cartel, and the hand guiding the bloodshed disappeared. After the army failed to contain the violence and even escalated the chaos nationwide, President Enrique Peña Nieto created a new force called the gendarmerie. It was meant to be incorruptible.
Méndez Pineda spent most of his first two years as a reporter driving from one corpse to another. But February 22, 2016, was a slow day, so when he heard about a car that had lost its brakes and crashed into a police truck, he grabbed his notebook and camera. By the time he arrived, officers had the driver in cuffs. The gendarmerie, Méndez Pineda would later write, stood the driver against a wall and “tried to intimidate him with their weapons.” When officers noticed Méndez Pineda taking pictures, they demanded his camera. “I’m just doing my job,” he said. As the cops surrounded him, he tried to lighten the mood with a smile. “What are you laughing at?” an officer asked. “Just like you’re laughing at me, I’m going to laugh at you.”
Méndez Pineda’s article published two days later: “Gendarmerie Abuse and Violate the Rights of Citizens.” At the urging of colleagues, he filed a complaint with a human rights commission. Soon after, he answered a knock at his door. “Is it him or not?” a voice shouted from the street while six men pointed guns at him.
Méndez Pineda didn’t stay in town long enough to investigate why they didn’t shoot him. He fled for the state capital. After officers found him, he ran 2,000 miles north to a border city. Nine months passed before his phone rang.
“You can’t hide,” a voice said, naming the city where he now lived.
He asked who was calling.
“Don’t play dumb.”
Reporters Without Borders connected Méndez Pineda with Spector, who had helped win asylum for four other Mexican journalists. Spector’s best-known client is Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, whose story Charles Bowden told in this magazine in 2009. A decade and many appeals later, Gutiérrez Soto’s case was still pending. In immigration court, it’s not enough that his country’s soldiers threatened to kill him—judges want witnesses, paper trails. Méndez Pineda had that.
Spector called the case “perfect.”
The credible-fear interview is the first step in the asylum process. Méndez Pineda sat for his on the morning of March 1, 2017, a month after he crossed the border with Spector. The Department of Homeland Security interviewer asked why he’d left Mexico, and why he couldn’t return. “The federal police are everywhere,” Méndez Pineda said. Within 90 minutes, he’d passed his interview.
If Spector could get Méndez Pineda before a judge, he planned to argue for asylum based on persecution of political opinion. Mexico was one of the deadliest countries in the world for reporters, and Spector had news clippings and the human rights complaint to corroborate Méndez Pineda’s claims. But first he needed ICE to release his client. Otherwise, Méndez Pineda could be detained for months—even years—waiting to appear in court.
By then ICE was operating under new rules. In Trump’s first week in office he’d signed an executive order declaring he’d “end the abuse of parole and asylum provisions” that released migrants from detention. Parole rates dropped from 92 percent to practically zero, the ACLU later found. Under Trump, the number of migrants detained has swollen by some 18,000 people. This is crucial to his deterrence strategy because detained migrants are about five times less likely to find an attorney. Detained migrants without a lawyer are, in turn, 10 times less likely to win their case than those with a lawyer. And as detention numbers have increased, so have self-deportations. Spector filed for parole, and ICE denied it. He then told Méndez Pineda to write an op-ed in the El Paso Times. “I would be truly thankful and appreciative if I were to be released, since it would mean my life was saved,” it read. Spector appeared on TV stations, radio, in local and national papers. “What the case symbolizes,” he told the Washington Post, “is the criminalization of the asylum process.”
ICE moved Méndez Pineda to the privately run West Texas Detention Facility. There he lived in the “hen house,” where he recalls about 100 migrants sleeping in a space meant for 60. At night, rats and snakes crawled over the wooden floors. Yellow mold covered the bathroom walls. Next was the Cibola County Correctional Center, another private facility, 410 miles away in New Mexico. In 2016, the Nation reported on widespread medical neglect in the facility; several months later, the Bureau of Prisons canceled its contract. (ICE skirted this issue by contracting directly with the county.) On several occasions, agents locked Méndez Pineda in solitary, including once when he complained of a headache. “The guards look at the detainees with disgust on their faces,” Méndez Pineda wrote of his time there, “and everything we say to them is ignored…Honestly, it is hell.”
Méndez Pineda missed his family. He missed his girlfriend. He called Spector’s office every week. The guards acted as if his life meant nothing, he said, and he’d begun to believe it. “I realized that many of the agents treat immigrants as animals, not as human beings,” Méndez Pineda says. “For them, we are only a product.”
Spector, meanwhile, worked nights organizing an international campaign. Reporters Without Borders, the National Press Club, and human rights groups released statements on Méndez Pineda’s behalf. When ICE called the reporter a flight risk, Spector found a local priest willing to lend the young man a bed. Spector kept pushing.
Obsessing was the only way he knew how to work. As he recovered from cancer in 2012, he’d fill pages with his thoughts for Sandra to bring to the office. “He couldn’t even speak, but he’d write down what he’d want me to do,” she says. “It was really difficult. I was trying, and he was in excruciating pain.” When a case seized his mind, he could wander all day in mismatched boots. Sometimes he’d sit for hours at a bar strategizing over a tequila or staring at his files like he was possessed. “He is a friend of God and the devil,” says Mexican filmmaker Everardo González, who has known and worked with Spector for years. “He is all of it. Carlos Spector is the border.”
In April 2017, Spector sent his 68-page appeal to ICE. “Mr. Méndez is by no stretch of the imagination a flight risk,” he wrote. “Mr. Méndez should be saluted, recognized, and applauded for reporting federal corruption in Mexico, not incarcerated.”
Spector had organized another press conference. On May 3, 2017, he drove to his office around dawn like normal. Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, his former client, would be there to ask the government to free Méndez Pineda. As Spector paced the green carpet in his office, his chest throbbed. He tried to nap. But the pressure built. By 9 a.m., he knew he was dying.
It was a massive heart attack. Doctors found four clogged arteries, each requiring bypass surgery. In intensive care, Spector’s reaction to morphine triggered vivid hallucinations, and he clawed at the IVs in his arms.
As his wife held his hand, he screamed about being kidnapped. “How could you let them do this to me, Sandra?” A three-decade river of pain emptied into the hospital room, memories of threats on his own life, like the time a mysterious man aimed a gun at Spector in his office parking lot, shouting, “You’ve taken enough cases!” “I had never seen him that vulnerable, that scared in his life,” Sandra says.
Hospital staff tied Spector to the bed, and Sandra cradled his head. “Sandra, I’m drowning,” he cried. “Don’t let me drown.”
The day after Spector’s heart attack, ICE denied Méndez Pineda parole a second time. Twelve days later, rather than endure what could have been years in detention, Méndez Pineda self-deported. He now lives in hiding. He does not give out his full name, keeps few friends, and rarely leaves his apartment except to go to work. He avoids federal police. “I keep insisting this is not my life,” he told me recently.
Spector spent three weeks in the hospital, another two months resting at home. But even after he’d recovered from surgery and returned to the office, something had changed. “When you lose a case like that, it makes you doubt everything—you doubt your ability, your decisions,” he says. For the first time, he questioned if he should continue. What for? So I can have another heart attack? He calls the case “the vision of what was to come.”
In the two years since Spector walked Méndez Pineda across the border, Trump forced migrants to sleep on the rocks beneath the Ciudad Juarez–El Paso causeway, wrapping themselves in Mylar blankets against the cold. Razor wire now hangs from the fence. Since January, border agents have turned back more than 30,000 asylum seekers to wait out their cases in Mexico, according to Reuters. Thousands of them are children, hundreds younger than 1. This year, a former Trump staffer released a book claiming that Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, had told a fellow aide that he’d “be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched America’s soil.” (Then–press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the statement “certainly” didn’t reflect White House policy.) And in recent months, the administration has pushed its agenda even further, first securing an agreement with Guatemala that would send the vast majority of asylum seekers at the border back to the Central American country to seek protection, and later passing a regulation that would allow ICE to detain families indefinitely.
After several weeks back at work, Spector again found himself surrounded by stories of desperate people. He took on an indigenous Rarámuri man escaping violence in the Sierra Madre, where the Mexican government allows criminals to operate unchecked. This year he represented an entire family threatened by cartels and who were driven by the Mexican army to the US border because, they were told, even the military couldn’t protect them.
Spector started telling himself he had no option but to help as many people as possible. He was arriving at the office before dawn. He was obsessing again, and he didn’t have time to wait.