Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Mario Guevara a reporter with Mundo Hispanico poses for a portrait with his wife Mirian and two of his three children Katherine, 14, and Oscar, 8, in their Lilburn home on Friday. Mario came to the United States in 2004 from his native El Salvador after being attacked by radicals and receiving death threats, now he is at risk of being sent back to his native country.
LILBURN -- Mario Guevara's simple home off Wynne Russell Road is filled with important pictures.
The mantel, in a small living room crowded with furniture, exalts photos of his family -- wife Mirian, sons Oscar and Jonathan, daughter Katherine. His brother, Eduardo Castro, is there too, looking serious in full military uniform. He has fought for the United States Army in Afghanistan.
In Guevara's office hang more pictures -- Mario, a respected Hispanic journalist, smiling with the presidents of Mexico, Peru, his native El Salvador. Mario with former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue.
All the way to the right, tucked in about a foot's space between a window and a closet door, is the most relevant photo, though, the one most telling of Guevara's current predicament. Mario, almost a decade ago in El Salvador, crouches with a camera and speaks into a walkie-talkie. Police officers surround the barrel-chested, light-skinned man, one with a hand on his wrist.
There's blood on his left cheek, and a worried expression on the rest of his face. This is why, he says, he cannot go back.
An appeal will be filed this week, Guevara's attorney, Byron Kirkpatrick, said. One last shot.
"Our hope," Kirkpatrick said Friday, "is that when we talk to the government they'll understand that this is a unique case, and that this is not the kind of guy we need to be spending resources on to deport."
Guevara is a writer and sometimes-photographer for Mundo Hispanico, a Norcross-based newspaper that's the largest Spanish-language publication in Georgia. Ironically enough, he covers immigration issues, something he's now caught up in himself.
In the early 2000s, Guevara was an esteemed journalist working for El Salvador's La Prensa Grafica, a paper he described this week as that country's version of the Washington Post. Things went off the rails in late 2003.
In September of that year, he was covering "leftist demonstrations" when he was approached by several radicals and accused of being an undercover agent of the ruling Salvadoran political party, a conservative pro-business group called the Nationalist Republican Alliance.
Within a month, things had escalated. According to documents filed in his case with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Guevara was covering a protest when he was called out by name and attacked with rocks. The photo in his office was taken in the aftermath.
Ten days later he was confronted in a park. Two men said they knew him and his family, and described him as a "military objective." They said they would find him alone and kill him. Mirian, his wife, frequently saw men lurking outside their home.
"I have enemies there," Guevara said.
In January 2004, Guevara sent his daughter and pregnant wife to the United States. He followed in March. They chose Gwinnett County because Guevara's mother and brother, both U.S. citizens, were already here.
More than eight years later, a federal immigration judge has denied Mario Guevara's application for political asylum. The case is a complicated one, but here's the gist:
Guevara, who came originally on a tourist visa, applied for political asylum about 18 months after coming to the U.S. That's six months past the typical deadline, but a transgression ultimately forgiven by the extenuating circumstances.
"It is my professional opinion that Mr. Guevara did suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which lingered over a period of eighteen to twenty-four months," a local psychotherapist wrote in documents filed in court. "This condition kept him from conducting the normal process he needed to complete in order to guarantee the stability and safety of his family."
The application was postponed year after year until late last month, when Guevara and Kirkpatrick, who is handling the case pro bono, finally found themselves in Atlanta and in front of Immigration Judge Earle Wilson.
Political asylum was denied. Guevara said the judge told him the situation in El Salvador was now safe. Guevara said his former colleagues tell him otherwise.
"They say, 'We are not living here, we are surviving here,'" he said.
In an affidavit filed with in the case, La Prensa Grafica photography editor called the threats against Guevara "much more serious" than others he'd heard of.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has said it's no longer interested in deporting Guevara. Kirkpatrick said they will likely implement a process called prosecutorial discretion. which would, if the appeal filed this week is eventually denied, mean Guevara and his family would be allowed to stay in-country with an undocumented status.
Guevara, who has paid taxes during his time in the U.S., said they would not do that.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is in charge of work authorization, does not comment publicly on individual cases.
The appeal that will be filed this week will likely keep the Guevaras here for several more months, essentially eliminating the current Aug. 20 mandated departure date. The appeals process -- which Kirkpatrick said can take anywhere from six to 18 months -- will grant Guevara the same status he's had for the better part of a decade.
"As long as your application is pending ... you can get work authorization, you have status," Kirkpatrick said.
Mario Guevara loves the United States.
"I pay taxes. I'm a good citizen," he said. "I feel like a U.S. citizen. I don't have a piece of paper, but I feel like a U.S. citizen. I'm proud of this country."
He starts most sentences describing his current predicament with the phrase "you have to know," pleading in stilted but passable English for a fair shake. He says he's not asking for a favor, and refuses to call on connections he's made over the years covering immigration issues.
"The only person that doesn't believe in my story is the judge," he said. "I don't want to move my case to another state because I believe it is a true case, it is a fair case, and a have a lot of proof ... It's the government, I have to respect the law. But please reconsider my case, I have a good case."
Statistics show the Atlanta immigration court is one of the country's least likely to grant asylum -- in the fiscal year 2011, only 38 out of 175 cases were approved. The 78 percent denial rate is well above the national average of 48 percent.
All that's left for Guevara is to wait. All that's left for his wife to do is pray.
"She says, 'No Mario, we won't go, believe me, we won't go. God is with us,'" Guevara said. "I hope she has the truth, but obviously as a journalist I try to see things objectively."