As Mexico's drug war grinds on, people are fleeing to the United States in ever greater numbers. The number of Mexicans requesting asylum more than doubled from fiscal year 2007 to 2008.
Political asylum is usually reserved for refugees claiming religious or political persecution, or fear of torture. But one test case could foretell more cases to come.
In 2005, newspaper reporter Emilio Gutierrez Soto, who worked for El Diario del Noroeste in Nuevo Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, wrote a series of stories quoting witnesses who said Mexican soldiers in northern Chihuahua went on a crime wave, robbing people at gunpoint. Shortly afterward, Gutierrez says, he was summoned to a hotel to face a colonel and a general.
"They told me 'You've published three articles; don't publish another one. If you do publish another one, we'll kill you,' " he said.
Gutierrez says he filed a complaint with the local public ministry and the national human rights commission. Three years later — even though he stopped reporting on alleged military abuses — he says he received another death threat from the army through an acquaintance.
The Mexican military has denied any knowledge about threats against Gutierrez.
Terrified, the 45-year-old journalist got his 15-year-old son, Oscar, and drove to the border crossing at Antelope Wells, N.M., in June of last year.
"The immigration official asked me why I was entering the territory of the United States," Gutierrez remembers. "I told him I was very afraid, our lives are threatened by elements of the army. 'Hold on, hold on,' he told me, 'Slow down.' I asked for humanitarian help. Then I told him I was a journalist and showed him my credentials."
Emilio Gutierrez spent the next seven months in an immigrant detention center in El Paso. His son was detained for two months before being released into the custody of family members in El Paso. Then suddenly, without explanation, Gutierrez was released in January.
He's now speaking out, and waiting his turn in U.S. immigration court to explain why he should be granted political asylum — a difficult case to make under the best of circumstances.
"When one is threatened in Mexico these days, it means something. Life at this point in Mexico, especially here on the border, is cheap," says his lawyer, Carlos Spector.
Spector is well aware that asylum is rarely granted to journalists. He must convince an immigration judge that Gutierrez has a well-founded fear of persecution — that the articles he wrote critical of the military constitute "political opinion" under asylum law.
An analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University shows that Mexicans have one of the highest rates of asylum denial by U.S. immigration courts in the world — 86 percent of asylum requests are denied. The problem is that Mexico is a friend and neighbor.
"Mexico is one of our favored trading partners; we have a lot of U.S. businesses operating in Mexico, so it's difficult to sit there and say that Mexico is totally out of control and allows persecution and violation of human rights," says Kathleen Walker, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Nevertheless, attorney Spector says he is optimistic. Last year, he represented 10 police officers from Juarez who fled the city's drug war and sought political asylum across the river. Like Gutierrez, they were locked up awaiting a hearing. And eventually, all 10 got frustrated, dropped their asylum requests, and went home. The difference with Gutierrez is that he has been released, Spector believes, because of intense media attention.
"The tactic of the government was to avoid us getting into court, which is our forum. We have home team advantage in court," he says.
A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency does not use detention as a way to discourage asylum seekers; the government evaluates each asylum request to see whether the seeker should be detained or released.
But clearly, the spiraling cartel violence that is driving more Mexican asylum requests is not abating. Two weeks ago, under threats from the drug mafia, the Juarez police chief resigned and the mayor moved his family to El Paso.
Jorge Luis Aguirre is a journalist from Ciudad Juarez who edits a popular news Web site called La Polaka. He, his wife and three children fled to El Paso in November after receiving a death threat, he said, in response to columns he wrote criticizing the state attorney general's office. Aguirre is now considering requesting asylum himself.
"Lots of people are threatened, and they don't have alternatives," he said. "They don't have a visa or residency in the United States. What they want is to get out of Juarez."
Aguirre and Gutierrez recently formed Mexican Journalists in Exile, a solidarity group for their colleagues who flee death threats, as they did. Many eyes will be watching the outcome of Gutierrez's asylum case later this year; if he's successful, expect similar cases to come.