A reporter detained: On life inside ICE camps

Emilio Gutiérrez Soto on his release day in El Paso. Photo: Julian Aguilar of the Texas Tribune Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a Mexican journalist based in the United States, has twice been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In late July, he was released from his second round of detention. For the first time, he has written a first-person account of the experience. Haga clic aquí para la versión en español.

My rebelliousness landed me in this situation: legal limbo in pursuit of political asylum. Last year, my son and I were ordered deported from the United States. It has been a difficult time, and it is no easier to write now in the first person—something I have never done before. Until now, it has only been my role to write other people’s stories.

Today is different. I need to spell out some of my recent experiences, so that others will not go through these extremely degrading hardships in a foreign place where universal liberties are proclaimed and then inhumanely denied to those who would seek protection.

Ten years ago, in spite of the danger of working as a journalist in my home country, Mexico, and President Felipe Calderón’s “War on Drugs,” I never imagined that I would cross the border to the US, seeking the protection of the authorities, or that I would twice be imprisoned in holding camps, the second time with my son Oscar at my side.

But the decision to request asylum was quick. Crossing the armed forces of my country, the executing arm of the Mexican state under the control of Calderón, was not something to think twice about. I had received serious threats from the Mexican government. Because of my work, I lost access to my true heritage, lost a family, lost a beloved woman, lost a community, lost a Motherland, and was forced to venture out in search of charity.

When I crossed the border to El Norte from my small community in the northeast of Chihuahua, to save my life and that of my son, I requested political asylum.

I remember the moment of crossing.

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“What are you bringing?” La Migra (the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer) asked when we crossed that morning through El Berrendo to the US.

“Fear,” I responded right away.

“Of whom?”

“Of the military officials who want to kill me. I’m a journalist.”

“And what do you want here?”

“Political asylum,” I answered.

La Migra slid his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose to peer over them at me inquisitively. “But aren’t soldiers there to look after you?”

“Not those ones!” I said. I turned white.

“Okay! Please step down to the office,” La Migra said.

That’s when the way of sorrows began, and would last more than ten years.

I was sent to a holding camp, and my son—just 15 years old—to a youth center. Jail! And with jail came separation from Oscar, who is my life, my very breath.   Our separation was a disgrace. The limbo began, and it was without mercy.

I think I only was able to speak with my son on the telephone three times during that first two and a half months, until he was freed and went to live with some friends. That was a certain peaceful interlude. My son was free, and could go to school. Just for that, I didn’t mind staying in prison awaiting a decision, though I had to endure everything that happened in the holding camp, where the human values of prisoners is what matters least.

After seven and a half months, I could see my son Oscar again, in person. The wounds of that legal separation have still not healed. We are still hurt intensely, and though we try to be strong and forget these scars, it has not been possible to move on.

Almost ten years later, the story repeated itself. But this time we were both locked in the same camp for more than seven months. That has wounded me even more.

December 7, 2017, we were waiting for an Appeals Court reconsider the deportation ordered by Robert Hought, an immigration judge in El Paso, Texas.

We were ordered deported. Without taking into account our appeal, our wrists and ankles were handcuffed and we were about to be forced to cross the border back to a confrontation with our hangmen, the Mexican military officials who are the executing arm of the Aztec Nation.

A phone call to ICE officers allowed us to return to the unit that had ordered our deportation. But it did not prevent us from ending up in jail, and this began our painful Viacrucis that I would not wish on any earthly inhabitant.

For several days, we slept on the ground and in pestilential rooms, where the degradation by officers of a private company began to corrode our hearts. Their despotic shouts were heard then, and for more than seven months.

As prisoners, we began to be destroyed by the immigration “system.” What a costly mistake it was to have dared criticize the erratic policies and human rights violations of ICE. I was torn in half by seeing my son dressed in a prison uniform.

Going back for more than seven months to a holding camp, disguised as an ICE “center,” was, this time, more degrading. Eating waste classified as yeast-based foods resulted in a severe physical crisis. In a short time I gained an enormous amount of weight, and there was no way to reduce it because there was nowhere to move around, not to mention to find food aside from scraps without any nutritional value.

In prison, “food” only resembled real food when there was some sort of inspection. That was when they offered charred chicken. Gomez, the sacrosanct guard, began to announce the charred chicken a week in advance as a delicacy, as divine manna for the palates of prisoners, us criminals, us immigration criminals. Few pieces of the cremated chicken could be rescued to be eaten.

Humiliation was served up to migrants at the moment of their most pressing need, since the call of nature must be answered in a display before guards and cellmates. Privacy is non-existent. You are constantly under the magnifying glass of guards and security cameras. How you yearn for a shower taken in privacy!

The guards are relatives, family members of one another. So complaints about the violations of elementary rights never get anywhere. What’s more, we were warned, “Your complaints will never be heard, even if they are sent to Donald Trump. First they will be delivered to us, the lieutenants. The captains will never even hear about them. Don’t waste your time. Your complaints will not be delivered.” We are less than nothing in those places.

At one point, ICE decided to separate Oscar and me. They tried to send my son to another camp. The only thing that prevented it was my precarious health. In the absence of medication for my high blood pressure and high cholesterol, we were allowed to remain together.

Doctor Guaderrama, the head doctor of the camp, determined that separating us could be an aggravating factor for my already precarious health. He did not want to be responsible for a possible tragedy, and recommended that we should be together while he was medically finding the solution to counteract the high blood pressure and cholesterol. “I cannot authorize your transfer or that of your son, in case it triggers a tragedy,” he told me. “You stay here with your son, while I find the solution to your problem.” And we stayed together.

Doctor Guaderrama ordered a “diet” to treat me. But in that environment, a diet didn’t exist. Balanced foods were only found in the dreams or nightmares of ICE officers. The solution was taking ever larger doses of medicine to treat my physical ills. That is when I realized that prisoners who did not come in sick became sick in prison.

Our trials began daily at five in the morning and ended at ten thirty at night. By then, I had consumed five or six pills of Tylenol, of 800 milligrams each. I tried to lessen my physical pain, and still found myself awake at dawn, unable to sleep. At dawn I await again the screams, the anguish of others, the stress, the abuse in these new ghettos.

I saw the pain in my brave son. I was witness to his worry, his worry upon seeing my disquiet. We have embraced each other’s shared pain in solidarity.

What a debt I now have to my son! He was the victim of the journalistic work of his father, and now we are facing an uncertain future, without a homeland, without the proper conditions of a place to rest our heads in safety, our lives, our future, or his boyish dreams of living a tranquil life. That tranquility was stolen from us by a drunken president who has caused the greatest damage to our country since the Spanish Conquest, Felipe Calderón, and now his accomplice, Enrique Peña Nieto.

The criminalization of those of us seeking political asylum has just begun. I asked Oscar for forgiveness for landing him in jail. My son’s response still reverberates in my ears: “We are together, we arrived together, and if we have to go back—we will go back together.” It was the response that today encourages me to return to my work with greater effort, a renewed commitment, stronger, and with more love and dedication.

Haga clic aquí para la versión en español.

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Emilio Gutiérrez Soto is a Mexican journalist based in the United States and a recipient of a 2018-2019 Knight-Wallace Fellowship.