As an investigative journalist in the violence-riddled Mexican state of Guerrero, 26-year-old Martin Mendez Pineda was no stranger to death threats. In February, however, the constant unease reached a tipping point when he was attacked by Mexican law enforcement in Acapulco — prompting Mendez to seek asylum
in United States, via Texas.
But instead of a save haven, Mendez faced arrest by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who immediately tossed him into a prison-like detention center in El Paso. Despite having a clean criminal record, getting federal officials agree he had "a credible fear of returning to his country," and even receiving letters of recommendation from multiple journalism organizations, Mednez has been stuck in detention ever since.
In most asylum cases, the applicant is released from custody until their asylum hearing, or unless they pose a serious danger to the U.S. The feds' response to Mendez's asylum request may be a sign of what to expect from ICE under Donald Trump's Administration, according to Mendez's attorney, Carlos Spector.
“To deny a reporter release, who had no criminal history, no threat to the community who presented himself lawfully at the bridge with a strong letter from Reporters Without Borders, to deny that, I think is throwing down the hatchet,” Spector told the Texas Tribune
in an interview this week. “This is a message that if he can’t get out, then no one else will either.”
Spector told the Tribune he fears this delayed, unnecessary holding process will become the norm under Trump's Administration — especially since Trump signed an executive order in January requesting increased vetting of immigrants.
But this kind of pushback isn't necessarily new for asylum-seeking Mexicans fleeing violence. Of the 12,831 asylum requests from Mexicans received during 2016, under President Barack Obama's leadership, only 464 – fewer than 4 percent - were actually granted.
Mendez, a reporter for Novedades Acapulco,
had been covering the city government's violent abuse of power, until it was turned toward him. According to Reporters without Borders, the international organization that sent a letter
demanding Mendez' detention release to ICE officials, journalists are a common target
of government gunfire in the Guerrero state.
“This journalist, who has been persecuted and threatened with death in his country, must be allowed to present his case for political asylum freely and with dignity before an immigration judge," writes Emmanuel Colombié,
the head of RSF’s Latin America bureau.
To Spector, Mendez' case shows the U.S.' continued interest in blurring the line between an genuine asylum seeker and a criminal on the run.
“What's happened to him has happened to others,” Spector told the Washington Post
. “It's now become normal to lock people up like criminals if you're fleeing persecution, which is a violation of international and U.S. law. … What the case symbolizes is the criminalization of the asylum process.”