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Journalists fleeing threats at home trapped in ICE detention over US asylum seeker policy

December 14, 2018

When Cuban police escorted Serafín Morán Santiago on to a plane to Guyana in 2016, they warned the journalist he could be jailed for 15 years if he tried to return. Authorities there had already detained and tortured him for his reporting. But when he was attacked in Guyana and then threatened in Mexico, Morán said he had no option but to seek asylum elsewhere.

In April, he traveled to south Texas where, despite passing a “credible fear” interview to prove that he was at serious risk if deported, the U.S. Immigration and Customs (ICE) ordered him held at an ICE detention facility until his asylum application had been approved. “[The border agent] said it was to protect me for [one] day, but this day turned into nearly seven months,” Morán told CPJ.

Morán is one of at least seven journalists seeking asylum in the U.S, whose cases CPJ has documented or assisted with in the past 18 months. All of them fled their home countries after receiving threats for their work, and have been detained for long periods by ICE. While none of these, including two still held in ICE centers, figure on CPJ’s annual count of journalists imprisoned directly in relation to their work, their stories demonstrate how journalists forced into exile can encounter a host of new challenges, including being detained in a U.S. immigration center.

The journalists, who were held for between two and seven months, are among the hundreds of thousands affected by President Trump’s policies toward asylum seekers and migrants. The impact of the policies goes beyond the U.S. border. Journalists who are not U.S. citizens previously told CPJ they fear being singled out or arrested due to racial profiling. CPJ is aware of at least one case of a journalist being handed over to ICE after his arrest while covering a protest.

According to a legal challenge led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of the Trump administration’s arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, parole rates have fallen at major ports of entry in the U.S., and individuals who would otherwise have been released while their applications were reviewed are instead being held, sometimes for months. The change falls in line with a memo released in February 2017, in which then-Director of Homeland Security John Kelly said parole should be granted “sparingly.”

One of the journalists—Emilio Gutiérrez Soto who fled threats in Mexico—has been granted parole while his case is processed, and a second was released after he paid a $10,000 bond. By the time Gutiérrez was released from an ICE detention facility near El Paso in July 2018, he had been detained twice, for seven months each time.

I think it’s terrible anytime a bona fide journalist comes from any country where they’re being persecuted for doing their job, and we persecute them more by detaining them and giving them poor treatment in the hopes that they’ll give up,” Eduardo Beckett, an immigration lawyer who is representing Gutiérrez in his asylum case, told CPJ, “We’re violating the spirit of immigration law and we’re violating the spirit of what democracy is.”

However, prolonged detention is becoming the norm. “After the Trump administration, we went from some people getting parole to almost no one,” Beckett told CPJ.

Citing the new administration’s directive, an ICE official in El Paso told CPJ in January that asylum seekers are denied parole in all but the most exceptional circumstances. Prior to this administration, approximately 90 percent of asylum seekers who passed the credible fear interview were granted parole, according to ICE data cited in the ACLU challenge. From February to September 2017—the most recent data available to the ACLU—100 percent of the parole requests made in El Paso were denied.

Being detained after fleeing persecution at home adds to the psychological toll.

People who have fled persecution are at particular risk for traumatic stress and depression,” Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher and policy analyst for refugee protection at the advocacy organization Human Rights First, told CPJ. A 2003 study by Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture and Physicians for Human Rights found “extremely high symptom levels of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among detained asylum seekers,” which “worsened the longer that individuals were in detention.”

Carlos Spector, a lawyer who represented Martín Méndez Pineda, a Mexican journalist who fled after police in the state of Guerrero threatened him, said his client agreed to be deported after being denied parole twice. “He couldn’t take it. He became suicidal, he went berserk and just needed out,” Spector said, adding that although Méndez passed the credible fear interview, ICE deemed him a flight risk. The lawyer also represented Gutiérrez during his first asylum request in 2008, during which ICE detained the journalist for seven months before granting him parole following public outcry.

Spector said he thinks the Trump administration uses “prolonged detention as punishment and deterrence, and it’s working.”

In response to the ACLU challenge against the Department of Homeland Security and ICE, the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in July that ICE cannot arbitrarily detain asylum seekers who passed a credible fear interview, and must make individualized rulings on parole requests in accordance with a 2009 ICE directive.

A spokeswoman for ICE told CPJ in December that the agency works closely with U.S. Customs and Border Protection on asylum applications. “Decisions regarding whether individuals will be detained while their immigration proceedings are pending are made by ICE on a case-by-case basis, based on each person’s circumstances. In making such determinations, ICE-ERO officers weigh a variety of factors, including the individual’s criminal record, immigration history, ties to the community, risk of flight, and whether he or she poses a potential threat to public safety,” the spokeswoman said.

While most of the cases CPJ has dealt with involve journalists detained as they enter the U.S., El Salvadoran journalist Manuel Duran was detained by ICE after Memphis police arrested him while he was covering a protest in April 2018. Duran, who is waiting for an appeal in his case to be heard, is one of at least four journalists arrested this year while covering protests, according to the Press Freedom Tracker.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an organization of civil rights lawyers and advocates, argued in a legal filing that Memphis police collaborated with ICE to detain and deport Duran on the basis of an outstanding deportation order from 2007. The SPLC and Duran alleged that his arrest and detention were in retaliation for the journalist’s critical reporting on allegations that the police coordinated with ICE to detain suspected immigrants.

Memphis police director Michael Rallings denied that allegation during a press conference on April 17.

Of the other journalists, after lengthy waits, only one has been granted asylum. U.S. Immigration approved Morán’s request after he spent nearly seven months in detention. “It was tragic and bitter,” he said, “but it also taught me that as a human being you cope by connecting with other people.” He said that although he wishes he could be with his daughters and elderly mother in Cuba, he is excited to return to broadcast and radio journalism.