STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Okay, heres a side effect of Mexicos drug war: The number of Mexicans fleeing to the United States is growing, and the number requesting asylum in the U.S. has more than doubled. Political asylum is usually reserved for refugees claiming religious or political persecution or fear of torture. But in a test case, a Mexican journalist has asked for asylum because he says the military has threatened to kill him. NPRs John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT: In 2005, a newspaper reporter named Emilio Gutierrez wrote a series of stories quoting witnesses who said Mexican soldiers in northern Chihuahua State went on a crime wave, robbing people at gunpoint. Shortly afterwards, Gutierrez says, he was summoned to a hotel to face a colonel and a general who were furious.
Mr. AMILIO GUTIERREZ (Journalist): (Through translator) They told me, you published three articles, dont publish another one. If you do publish another one, well kill you.
BURNETT: 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 and drove to the border crossing at Antelope Wells, New Mexico, in June of last year.
Mr. GUTIERREZ: (Through translator) The migration official asked me why I was entering the territory of the United States. 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. I told him I was a journalist and showed him my credentials.
BURNETT: 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. Hes 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 in the best of circumstances. His attorney is El Paso immigration lawyer Carlos Spector.
Mr. CARLOS SPECTOR (Immigration Attorney): When one is threatened in Mexico in these days, it means something. Life at this point in Mexico, especially on the border, is cheap.
BURNETT: What are the precedents of Mexican journalists receiving political asylum in the United States?
Mr. SPECTOR: As far as I know, none.
BURNETT: Spector 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. Records show that Mexicans have one of the highest rates of asylum denial by U.S. immigration courts in the world; 86 percent of asylum requests from Mexicans are denied. That comes from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. The biggest problem is that Mexico is our friend, says Kathleen Walker, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Ms. KATHLEEN WALKER: Mexico is one of our favorite trading partners. We have a lot of U.S. businesses operating in Mexico. So its very difficult to sit there and say that Mexico is totally out of control and allows persecution and violation of human rights.
BURNETT: Nevertheless, attorney Spector says hes optimistic. Last year, 10 policemen from Juarez fled the citys drug war and sought political asylum across the river. Like Gutierrez, they were locked up awaiting a hearing. Eventually all the police got frustrated, dropped their asylum requests, and went home. But Gutierrez was released, Spector believes, because of the intense media attention. Now hell have his day in court.
Mr. SPECTOR: The tactic of the government was to avoid us getting into court, which is our forum.
BURNETT: A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the government evaluates each asylum request to see whether the seeker should be detained or released. Spector believes detention has been the policy because U.S. authorities want to discourage more asylum seekers from fleeing Mexicos spiraling cartel violence. 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 fled to El Paso in November after receiving a death threat, and he is considering requesting asylum himself.
Mr. JORGE LUIS AGUIRRE (Journalist): (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: Lots of people are threatened and they dont have alternatives, Aguirre said. They dont have a visa or residency in the United States. What they want is to get out of Juarez.
Jorge Luis Aguirre and Emilio 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 Gutierrezs asylum case later this year. If its successful, expect similar cases to come.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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