A Mexican human rights investigator who has said his life has been threatened because of his efforts to document alleged abuses by the Mexican military is being detained by U.S. immigration officials after he tried to enter the country through an El Paso border crossing, his attorney said Friday.

Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, who directed the Juarez office of the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission in northern Mexico, has documented about 170 incidents of abuse by the Mexican military, ranging from homicide to reckless driving, his attorney said.

De la Rosa, 63, last month fled his home near Juarez, which has been racked with drug-related violence the past two years, including nearly 2,000 killings since January. He has been in exile in El Paso since receiving a death threat, which he believes came from the military, as he drove home from work.

De La Rosa, however, doesn’t want asylum in the United States, his El Paso-based attorney, Carlos Spector, said.

“He doesn’t want to leave his country and abandon his life-long commitment. He wants to continue investigating” allegations of human rights abuses by the military, Spector said. “He doesn’t want to stay in any one place each night.“

The investigator was returning to El Paso on Thursday night around 6 p.m. when he was asked by a Customs and Border Protection officer if he was afraid for his life in his country.

De la Rosa, who has a special visa for border residents that allows him to be in the United States for up to 30 days at a time, answered that he was afraid, but he had no intention of asking for asylum, Spector said. He was then arrested. He is now being held at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in El Paso, ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa confirmed today, but declined further comment.

Roger Maier, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection in El Paso, said that if a person expresses fear of returning to their home country an asylum officer must conduct an interview to determine if asylum is appropriate. U.S. officials said they had detained de la Rosa for his protection, according to Spector.

“There is absolutely no reason why they should be detaining him. He hasn’t been in the country for more than 30 days,” Spector said. “He has every right to be in this country.”

Spector suggested that the U.S. government is trying to compel de la Rosa to seek asylum so it can deny it, even though his case appears winnable.

“The United States government doesn’t force anyone to file (an asylum application) who doesn’t want to file an application,” said Maria Garcia-Upson,
a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Service, which adjudicates asylum claims.

Asylum officers give a detainee 48 hours to contact a family member or an attorney before a credible fear interview. Most credible fear interviews are conducted and decided upon within two weeks, she said.

The activist was in his car waiting at a stoplight on Sept. 4 when another car pulled up beside him, Spector said. The driver rolled down his window, pointed his finger and pretended to shoot him, saying “Quiet down or we are going to kill you.”

The Mexican military has denied any involvement in the threat on his life. De la Rosa, who still occasionally travels into Juarez for meetings, has been negotiating with Mexican officials to receive protection and security measures so he can continue his work, Spector said.

The investigator was told that he would be out of a job if he didn’t report back to work by Oct. 6, according to Amnesty International, which has called on the Mexican government to investigate the alleged threat and to provide protection for the investigator and his family.

Calls for comment to the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Mexican consulate in El Paso were not returned.

Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.