Thirzia Galeas, an investigative journalist from Honduras, was taken into ICE custody last Sunday, May 24, after requesting asylum in the United States. She is currently being held at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, where, according to the digital Honduran publication Reportar Sin Miedo, she is in close quarters with people who are Covid-19-positive.
Galeas is a former reporter for the Committee For Free Expression in Honduras (C-Libre) and does freelance reporting for digital newspapers such as Conexihon.hn. She’s a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation and primarily reports stories on Human Rights, women’s rights, and environmental rights.
Before fleeing Honduras, Galeas had reported on environmental activists fighting against the extraction of resources by multinational corporations for the independent media organization Reporteros de Investigación.
According to C-Libre, a man identified as Lester Obando, an alleged public prosecutor, threatened Galea’s life at a closed event in December 2020. But as reported by C-Libre, that wasn’t the first time she received threats – “The hostilities faced by journalist Thirzia Galeas date back to December 13, 2011, when a group of women journalists were violently repressed by members of the Presidential Honor Guard when they arrived at a protest condemning the murders of members of the press in Honduras.”
Honduras is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, with a World Press Freedom Index of 151 out of 180 – up from 148 in 2020. The International Press Institute recorded that 4 Honduran journalists were killed in 2020, and at least 40 have been murdered “in connection with their work” in the past decade.
Detained by ICE: “a nest of negligence and abuse”
Stewart Detention Center is known as one of the most dangerous ICE detention centers in the country – a recent report described it as a “nest of negligence and abuse,” and the ACLU considers it to be one of the deadliest.
The center, which prior to December 2020 had only housed men, recently received an influx of women detainees who were transferred from the privately-run Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, which came under national scrutiny last year after allegations emerged that women there were being forced to undergo “nonconsensual gynecological procedures, including hysterectomies,” which a whistleblower described as “forced sterilization.”
Amilcar Valencia, the executive director of El Refugio, told Efe that ICE and the private operator Core Civic “used the pandemic to take a situation that was already plagued by human rights abuses, medical malpractice, and lack of due process, and to make it even more traumatizing and frightening for the people trapped inside.”
Since the start of the pandemic, 4 detainees have died of Covid-19 at Stewart Detention Center; ICE has recorded a total of 610 confirmed cases within the facility, as well as at least 42 “currently under isolation or monitoring.” That’s particularly alarming for Galeas who, as reported by Reportar Sin Miedo, is immunocompromised and at risk of becoming severely ill if she were to be infected.
Detainees like Galeas cannot receive calls and are only allowed one visitor for a total of one hour per week.
It’s never been easy to seek asylum as a journalist
This isn’t the first time ICE has detained a Latin American journalist seeking asylum – in 2008 Mexican journalist Emilio Gutierrez fled to the US with his 15-year old son, after his reporting on Mexican drug cartels put his life in danger.
After nearly a decade in limbo, a judge ruled against his asylum case in 2017 and he was almost deported to Mexico; during that time he and his son were in ICE custody for at least 8 months. But The National Press Club and 18 other journalist organizations intervened on his behalf, appealing the ruling. Now, with a new administration in Washington, Gutierrez and The National Press Club are hopeful that his case will be given a second look.
“I have to believe that as the Biden administration works to correct the asylum system, political leaders will now finally take an honest look at my case and grant me and my son the chance to truly live without fear,” Gutierrez said in a short video, adding “I still believe that justice is possible.”
Ricardo Chavez Aldana, a journalist from Juarez, Mexico, presented himself to US immigration authorities in 2009 after he and his family received death threats due to his reporting on drug cartels. After 6 years, his case for asylum was finally approved by a judge in October 2015.
There is a precedent for journalists like Aldana, Gutierrez, and Galeas to seek refuge in the US, but it isn’t always clear under which legal requirement they would qualify for asylum. US law grants asylum to people fleeing persecution due to “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, [or] political opinion.” As Professor of Communications at Brigham Young University has pointed out, “journalism doesn’t fit nicely into one of the categories,” because journalists generally prefer to consider themselves politically neutral. They often apply for asylum on the grounds of political opinion or “membership in a particular social group,” but there’s still no specific category for journalists in exile.
On May 3, 2021, in recognition of Free Press Day, Senators introduced a bipartisan resolution “Recognizing widening threats to freedom of the press and free expression around the world.” It mentions that “Honduras remains one of the Western Hemisphere’s deadliest countries for journalists, where those working for opposition media or who are outspoken critics of the government are subjected to harassment, intimidation, and death threats by the country’s security forces and its affiliates.”
The US Citizenship Act of 2021 – President Biden’s promised legislation on immigration and addressing “root causes” in Central America – only mentions journalists to say that it will support, “government protection programs that provide physical protection and security to human rights defenders, journalists, trade unionists, whistleblowers, and civil society activists who are at risk” – but it doesn’t provide assurance that asylum cases like Galeas’s – whose life was allegedly threatened by members of her own country’s government – would be accepted or given priority.
Dashiell is a graduate of Reed College where he studied Latin American and Peninsular Spanish literature. At Latina Republic, Dashiell elevates the voices of activists and organizers that work to promote human rights and immigrant rights throughout Mexico. His work contributes to the organization’s mission of breaking stereotypes and bringing attention to underreported stories throughout Latin America.