“It should do what is in conscience needful and right,” – James M. Cox, publisher, politician and entrepreneur, about journalism.
In journalism, the injustice we report sometimes knocks on our door, or the tragedy we communicate stumbles into our home. Unfortunately, we are living a similar situation in MundoHispánico, Georgia’s largest and oldest Latino paper. Other media have exposed dysfunctional systems that impact their journalists. It is now our turn to do the same. And this time, it is of one of our colleagues, Mario Guevara.
Mario has a family that loves him, and a circle of friends who supports him. He says he loves this country, and contributes to its growth on a daily basis, pays taxes under his work permit, serves his community, and without being a burden. To my knowledge, his record is impeccable, and I dare to say he is perhaps the most well-known journalist in the Hispanic community we serve. His national awards are representative of that.
He has mainly covered the immigration beat, including the United States-Mexico border and an interview with Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio. His investigations of consulates and governmental entities, including immigration prisons and courts, have served to document irregularities and motivate changes. He has also monitored pro- or anti-immigration actions from organizations and elected officials. Mario was one of the first to detail the plight of Jessica Cólotl, a Kennesaw State student arrested for driving without a license. The story created a national debate surrounding undocumented students.
But, most of all, his multiple reports have given the unprotected Latinos and undocumented immigrants a voice, whether they have faced serious illness, discrimination and other restrictions due to lack of resources, creating various avenues for community support in every case. By those means, Mario’s story could resemble that of any exemplary citizen. However, the paradox, to paraphrase President Barack Obama, is that he is an American in every single way, except on paper.
About nine years ago, Mario escaped his native country, El Salvador, because of threats against his life and those he loved. Radical groups beat him and harassed him as a result of his public service as a reporter and photojournalist. Because of that situation, his boss at the time and photography editor for El Salvador’s La Prensa Gráfica, Francisco Campos, declared in a recent affidavit:
“I have supervised many photojournalists during my career, and in occasions, have heard of threats made from similar groups. Mario’s situation was much more serious in tone, this is why it still fresh in my mind. The life threats were real.”
Those reasons made Mario seek asylum here, following the complex protocols of a system which kept him in a type of limbo for almost a decade.
“The system’s inefficiency takes years, and creates uncertainty in those who do not know if they will be able to stay, or if they will be forced to leave, creating an anxiety difficult to endure,” his lawyer, Byron Kirkpatrick, told me.
After seven years of waiting and trials being cancelled, Mario finally got the response to his petition. Contrary to what he had expected, Mario was ordered to return to his country. The court provided him with a little less than two months to prepare his departure after paying a fine (“as if this honorable father was a criminal,” said his brother, Eduardo Castro, a soldier of the United States Army in a missive sent to various politicians).
A few days after the trial, Mario’s story appeared in several media outlets, and some immigrant-rights organizations expressed their sympathy for him. That’s when Immigration and Customs Enforecement decided then to make him eligible for persecutory discretion. But ICE’s decision only helps the agency to save efforts and resources, not Mario. It means that it would not persue his deportation, in case that he decides to stay and evade the court’s decision. But, if that’s the case, he would have to remain as an undocumented immigrant, with no visa or working permit.
If the court’s order remains as issued, Mario will also have to depart with his wife, Miriam, and his 14-year-old daughter, Katherine. They would also be accompanied by their sons, Jonathan and Oscar, ages 1 and 8, even though they are citizens of the U.S.
“If we have to return to El Salvador, I would not know what to do,” said Miriam in her declaration to the court. “Mario will be kidnapped or killed. The police could not help him.”
Sonia Guevara, Mario’s mother and a U.S. citizen because of Reagan’s amnesty program, is also worried. She says in her declaration: “Mario and his family have improved their economic situation, and have adapted to the United States. He is very proud of his journalistic profession in Atlanta. If my son were to return to El Salvador, I would fear for his life.”
Mario’s situation also afflicts and concerns me. One of the saddest things I have had to face during my career was to see this colleague I admire break down in tears of helplessness, when he is usually determined and in great spirits. It rips at my heart to think his family might be fragmented or impoverished, trapped between two systems that have failed them: one being their native country’s judicial system, and the other the immigration system in the country they decided to adopt as their own.
“It is very sad to be in the same shoes as the sources I report,” he said.
“We are going to appeal, and we are going to continue fighting for Mario,” said his lawyer. “I trust that reason will prevail and he will receive our government’s protection.”
Mario deserves to be happy with his family here, and his community also needs to continue being served with his pen and vocation. I also expect that this case will continue to inform the immigration debate, so that federal and state politicians, Republican and Democrat, can finally bring a fair and comprehensive reform that is long overdue.
And in the meantime, the fight will not stop. One day, Mario and other immigrants like him, will reach peace and find the ability to contribute to this society without being persecuted.
Rodrigo Cervantes is the editor of MundoHispánico. He is also a 2011-12 New York Times/Maynard Institute/National Association of Hispanic Journalists Leadership Academy fellow. Reach him at email@example.com.