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Mexican journalists seeking protection from drug-related violence run into U.S. bureaucracy and stereotypes

  • By Guest
  • October 10, 2012

By Lynn Romero

After living through a violent nightmare in Mexico, arrival at the doorstep of the United States should feel like a welcome relief for threatened Mexican journalists.

The reality, however, is much more somber as journalists find themselves confronted by a society full of perceptions and stereotypes of Mexican immigrants, and stuck trying to navigate through an outdated asylum process that neglects contemporary forms of persecution.

There is no question that the situation facing journalists in Mexico is devastating. A recent study claims that Mexican journalists experience the same levels of psychological trauma as war-time correspondents, but they may be even more disadvantaged because they are unable to remove themselves from the situation.

Between 2006 and July 2012, 67 journalists were killed in Mexico and 14 were reported missing; only one case has been brought to justice. Recently, significant legislative and protective measures have been created for journalists, but Mexican authorities are still slow to act, and in fact are implicated in much of the violence themselves.

In January, the International Press Institute (IPI) named Mexico the most deadly country in the world for media workers.

So it comes as no surprise then that large numbers of Mexican journalists are being displaced, and many are seeking asylum in countries such as the United States. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) estimates that 20 Mexican journalists have moved to Mexico City since the violence escalated and another 15 have sought refuge abroad.

The United States is the top receiving country for exiled journalists from across the world.

Being granted asylum, however, is not an easy task. A request cannot be made until a person is actually in the United States, so the first major hurdle is simply getting to the country. For many threatened Mexican journalists this means constantly looking over their shoulders throughout the duration of a cross-country trek towards safety.

Then, once journalists arrive at a U.S. port of entry and request asylum, they could potentially be detained if they don't have the legal documents necessary to enter the country. Mexican Journalist Emilio Gutierrez Soto had exactly this experience when he was separated from his teenage son and detained for more than seven months.

"It was one of the saddest events of my life, especially because I was separated from my son. My son was detained for two and a half months in a juvenile detention center," Soto told The Metropolitan, the student newspaper at the Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Asylum seekers, once released, are then thrust into a foreign society without work or shelter and are faced with considerable language and cultural barriers as they worry about family members back home and attempt to navigate the intricacies of the U.S. immigration system. And then the journalists wait.

According to a TRAC Immigration report, the backlog of immigration cases is steadily climbing although new court filings are falling. In August, immigration cases waited an average of 529 days before being heard.

Soto originally filed his asylum request in 2008, and was given a court date for two-and-a-half years later in May 2012. There still has not been any public notice regarding the resolution of his case.

Then there is the fear that after detention, hardship, and years of waiting, in the end an asylum case could be denied and the journalist sent back to the threats he fled. This is a particularly big issue for Mexicans who are denied asylum in disproportionally high numbers.

According to TRAC, from 2001 to 2006, 90.6 percent of 3,147 Mexican asylum cases were denied. In 2011, 104 Mexican cases were granted and 1,073 were denied.

As of the end of August, only two Mexican journalists have been granted political asylum status in the United States since the violence worsened in 2008.

Soto and his lawyer, Carlos Spector, told the Latin American Herald Tribune they believe that the reasons for high denial rates are political, and that the United States is reluctant to grant Soto and other Mexicans asylum because they don't want to acknowledge that the U.S.-financed Mexican army is committing abuses against Mexican civilians, including journalists.

Even for those journalists granted asylum, victory can be bittersweet. "It is hard to celebrate when it means I am never going back to my country. I miss my family, my friends, my city, and my house," said Mexican cameraman Alejandro Hernández Pacheco in an interview with the El Paso Times.

Despite the challenges faced when applying for asylum, it seems more Mexican journalists will have no choice but to flee to the United States.

Last June, 15 reporters fled violence in Veracruz, and another, Miguel Ángel López Solana, has submitted a request for asylum in the United States. To hear López's story watch the video of his interview at the 10th Annual Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas.

Reporters Without Borders also released an updated guide to help journalists who are forced into exile.

For more on attacks against the press in Mexico see the Knight Center's map of attacks on journalists and the press in Mexico.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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