I’m a reporter in Mexico. My life is in danger. But the United States wouldn’t give me asylum
Perspective: Mexican authorities threatened to kill me. I was detained for months in the United States before I agreed to be deported.
By Martín Méndez Pineda
On Feb. 5, I walked into the United States from Mexico and turned myself over to immigration authorities for the purpose of seeking political asylum. But even though I have good reason to fear for my life, U.S. officials refused to let me stay. And now I’m in danger again.
I’m a journalist in Acapulco, Mexico. For almost a year, I have been receiving death threats from Mexican federal agents over articles I wrote in Novedades Acapulco, a newspaper there. In February 2016, I witnessed abuses by the Mexican military during a traffic accident. As a journalist, I began taking photographs. Federal agents arrived and began screaming at me. They took away my camera, my identification and my credentials and began hitting me as they told me to stop taking pictures and leave the area. I filed a complaint with the Mexican National Commission for Human Rights. Immediately afterward, I began receiving threats over the phone. A few weeks later, several men arrived at my home, pointed a gun at my forehead and told me to keep quiet. I moved to a different city, but the threatening messages and phone calls continued. Eventually, I moved across the country, hoping that these men would finally forget about me. Unfortunately, it did not take long for them to find me again. I realized that there was no place in Mexico where I could go without fearing I would be killed — the same way so many of my fellow journalists have been. Just this month, award-winning reporter Javier Valdez was killed in Sinaloa. He was the sixth journalist slain in Mexico this year.
I had never been to the United States, nor had I planned to, so I never applied for a visa or any other form of entry document. But my life was in danger in Mexico, so I decided to do as the law indicates: I walked over the border, presented myself to authorities in El Paso and told them that I feared for my safety at home. Customs and Border Protection agents detained me and held me in federal custody for more than 100 days, even though I had submitted all the necessary legal documents and passed a “credible fear interview” in March showing that I faced real danger at home.
Word had been spreading in Mexico that U.S. immigration officers use intimidation tactics and harassment to discourage many of the detained so that they will decide to “request their own deportation.” I know now firsthand that this happens. They tried using this tactic with me in different ways since March 28, when they first denied my release under parole despite all of the evidence I submitted. (In the past, applicants for asylum were usually released into the country while they waited for a final decision on their case.) The only argument they used against me was that I do not have ties to the community and was thus a flight risk.
A few weeks ago, they denied my request for parole a second time, and I couldn’t take it any longer. I realized I had no hope of getting out. I decided to agree to be deported, despite the danger I face in my country — a danger they didn’t really take into account. On May 16, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents returned me across the border to Mexico.
From the inside, the asylum process looks like a joke at immigrants’ expense. The main issue is the way the process is carried out. Some people I met in detention had been waiting for an answer on their case for more than 10 or 11 months. One of the most effective tactics by ICE is to separate families. It is common to hear of families in which, after turning themselves over to the authorities, the mother and children are released while the father continues to be detained and, in the end, deported without being able to do a thing for his family. That forces the family members settled inside the United States to return home, because their already vulnerable economic situation has suddenly gotten worse. So, in the end, they are forced out of the country one way or another.
ICE officials clearly want Mexican citizens to choose deportation: Only a few hundred Mexican citizens a year get approved for asylum. In fiscal 2016, 12,831 Mexican nationals sought asylum; 464 applications were approved.
From the first day I crossed the border heading north, I saw discrimination, abuse and humiliation. They transferred me to a privately run detention center called West Texas Detention Facility in the city of Sierra Blanca. There, I experienced the worst days of my life. It is known by the detainees as “el gallinero” (“the henhouse”), because the barracks resemble a stable for livestock. It was designed for about 60 people but houses more than 100, who are exposed to all kinds of diseases and don’t have access to adequate medical attention.
The henhouse of Sierra Blanca is small, with metal bunks, worn-out rubber mattresses, wooden floors, bathrooms with the walls covered in green and yellow mold, weeds everywhere, and snakes and rats that come in the night. The guards look at the detainees with disgust, and everything we say to them is ignored.
Honestly, it is hell.
After I had been in Sierra Blanca for a week, one Sunday around 10 p.m., I was transferred to another privately run detention center: Cibola County Correctional Center, in Milan, N.M. The transfer was the worst torture. They had us chained by our feet and hips, with our hands pressed against our chests, without being able to move for more than 26 hours, as if we were dangerous criminals. (“ICE remains committed to providing a safe and humane environment for all those in its custody,” an agency spokeswoman, Leticia Zamarripa, told The Washington Post.)
I was in Cibola for one month and eight days until I was moved to the El Paso Processing Center. In El Paso, I began to write down my experiences and the experiences of other immigrants around me, as I waited to see whether I would be allowed to remain in the United States. I collected my thoughts and began to write everything with a pen and paper. I wrote for an entire day; once I finished, I had 14 pages. I dictated everything to my attorney, in a telephone call that lasted almost three hours. Reporters Without Borders, a journalist advocacy group, translated it into English.
After all the agony I experienced, I hope that when other journalists feel threatened as a result of their work and decide to seek asylum, they will not have to fear being detained for several months and being separated from their families only to see their case denied, and that all journalists in danger will receive refuge. My life is in danger again now that I’m back in Mexico. But my hope for other journalists seeking refuge in the United States will continue to grow.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post’s Post Everything blog.
Martín Méndez Pineda is a Mexican journalist.