By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: Fearing for his and his family’s lives, Mexican journalist Ricardo Chavez Adams fled his country in 2009 and sought political asylum in the United States.
Six years later, Chavez is still waiting for a U.S. Immigration court in El Paso, Texas, to decide if he, his wife, mother and son will be granted permanent residence in America.
His is not an isolated case.
In recent years, several journalists from Mexico have been forced to flee their native country for doing nothing more than writing or broadcasting stories about drug traffickers and corrupt government officials. They cross the border seeking a safe haven, only to languish for years as officials argue about whether journalists are political refugees.
Under American law, people seeking asylum must first establish that they persecution. Then they must prove that the persecution falls into one of five protected categories: race, religion, nationality, political opinion and social group.
The problem for foreign reporters is that journalism doesn’t neatly fit in any of the five. In the past, journalists have sought asylum on the basis of political opinion or membership in a particular social group. But covering drug trafficking is considered specialized reporting, not political opinion. And journalists aren’t considered a social group but professional employees.
Complicating matters is the fact that asylum seekers must also establish that the government is either involved in the persecution or unable to control the conduct of private actors.
That’s a tall order for journalists, whose jobs often involve personal risk and danger. Drug traffickers are considered criminals not political or paramilitary groups. Journalists from Mexico are having a difficult time persuading U.S. immigration courts that their government — which has collaborated with the United States for years to fight drug trafficking — is acting in a duplicitous way with some of the nation’s drug cartels.
“Cartels and corrupt officials in Mexico have intimidated the free press and become arbiters of what journalists may say and, therefore, what people know,” Daniel DeFraia of the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote earlier this year. “Journalists are regularly threatened not to cover certain stories — or ordered to cover certain viewpoints — or else they or their families will be harmed. And each time a journalist is threatened, attacked or killed with impunity, a message of intimidation is broadcast and reinforced.”
Carlos Spector, an El Paso lawyer who has represented several Mexican asylum seekers, told the Columbia Journalism Review that the powerful drug cartels work with corrupt police and government officials.
But most attacks on journalists in Mexico are carried out by criminals, not the authorities who may be on their payrolls. So judges are dismissing journalists’ claims of retaliation as “mere criminality,” according to Spector.
Since 2000, at least 89 Mexican journalists have been killed and 18 have disappeared, according to Reporters Without Borders. Between 2007 and 2013, at least 14 journalists fled Mexico, six coming to the United States, two to Canada and the rest to Europe, according to the non-profit organization, which monitors attacks on freedom of information worldwide.
Emilio Gutierrez Soto received death threats in 2005 after writing stories about alleged military involvement in drug trafficking in Chihuahua. In 2008, he returned home to find his house ransacked and received death threats. He left Mexico for the United States with his 16-year-old son that year, spending more than seven months in a U.S. immigration detention center.
He was released only after his story was aired on national television. Since then, he has appeared before an immigration judge to argue his case five times. His case is still pending along with that of Alejandro Hernandez Pacheco, a TV news cameraman for Televisa. Along with three other reporters, Pacheco was kidnapped in Durango, Mexico, in 2010, allegedly by one of the country’s largest drug cartels.
“We are living in a legal limbo,” Guitierrez Soto, told the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in 2011. “We are unable to have any emotional, familial or employment stability.”
Guiterrez Soto and many of the exiled journalists have temporary work permits but have had difficulty finding jobs in the United States. Since 2014, only two percent of journalists were able to continue working in exile, according to the CJR.
Maria Salazar-Ferro, coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Assistance Program, said the forced exile is “as violent an aggression against press freedom as imprisoning journalists.”
“It’s a very easy, very underreported way of silencing critical voices,” Salazar-Ferro said, quoted in a CJR story in August. “You send someone somewhere else where, yes, they are able to survive, but they’re unable to continue working, and they’re most certainly not able to continue being critical.”
The problems facing exiled journalists seem easy to fix.
Although the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act does not include journalism as a basis for asylum, U.S. immigration officials could simply add “professional persecution” to the list of five protected categories. Some U.S. circuit court judges have stated that reporting on systemic official corruption is inherently political and, as a result, could be grounds for asylum for the persecuted.
“Whether described as persecution based on political opinion or social group membership, the targeting of journalists who work to uncover and publicize official corruption should be recognized as a basis on which asylum may be granted,” Edward L. Carter, director of the School of Communications at Brigham Young University wrote in a 2007 study on international journalists and U.S. asylum law.
Carter, who has worked as a lawyer, said the INA, Congress, the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice should be “particularly sensitive” to the merits of journalists’ asylum claims.
“Particularly when it comes to U.S. attempts to promote democracy abroad, neither administration goals nor individual interests are served by removing from the United States non-U.S. journalists who already have experienced that their efforts to be catalysts for change in their countries will be met with strong opposition and, sometimes, government-sanctioned violence,” Carter wrote.
“In the end, the United States’ failure to see the value of accommodating journalist asylum seekers will only have a negative effect on the U.S. interests of promoting democracy and protecting national security.”