Mexican reporter Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto detained by ICE while appealing denial of asylum
Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a Mexican journalist who fled to the United States seeking asylum in 2008, was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on Dec. 7, 2017, in El Paso, Texas.
Gutiérrez worked for approximately 25 years as a correspondent in Mexico. He said in May 2008 that approximately 50 armed soldiers entered his home without a permit claiming they were searching for “weapons or drugs,” but left after finding no evidence of unlawful activity. At the time, he was writing for the Chihuahua-based El Diario del Noroeste.
In June 2008, he said, a source informed him that he was on a “hit list” due to his reporting on the military, and he fled Mexico with his then-15-year-old son, Oscar.
Eduardo Beckett, Gutierrez’s attorney, told the Freedom of the Press Foundation that Gutiérrez was offered physical protection by the Mexican government but declined it because he doubted the government’s ability to effectively protect him.
In 2008, Gutiérrez claimed political asylum at a border checkpoint in Columbus, New Mexico, and he and his son were taken to separate detention facilities in El Paso, Texas. His son was released to family in the United States in August 2008, and Gutiérrez was released in January 2009.
While awaiting an asylum decision, Gutierrez and his son settled in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and regularly completed their required check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
On July 19, 2017, nearly a decade after Gutiérrez’s original application for asylum, El Paso immigration judge Robert Hough denied his asylum request, ruling that Gutiérrez’s testimony was not credible, he had not sufficiently established fear of torture, and he had failed to show that the Mexican government could not protect him.
Beckett, Gutiérrez’s lawyer, believes that the judge underestimated the risks that Mexican journalists face. He said that, although Gutiérrez has not received specific threats from the Mexican military since entering the United States, the reporter still believes he would be killed if he returned to Mexico.
“The threat is still viable, and military people have long memories,” Beckett said.
Outside of war zones, Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 42 journalists and media workers were killed there in 2017 alone.
On Nov. 20, 2017, Gutiérrez’s attorney filed an appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals, asking that the board reopen Gutiérrez's asylum case and grant Gutierrez a temporary stay of removal, which would prevent ICE from deporting him while the board considered his appeal.
On Dec. 7, Gutiérrez and his son attended a routine check-in with ICE, but were unexpectedly detained, according to Beckett. ICE agents served Gutiérrez and his son with deportation papers, and walked them back towards the port of entry. When Beckett acquired an emergency stay of deportation, Gutiérrez and his son were taken to an ICE facility instead of being immediately deported.
Beckett said that it was technically legal for ICE to deport his client, since an immigration judge had previously denied Gutiérrez's asylum request. But he said that the detention and attempted deportation was still very unexpected and unusual, since Gutiérrez had an appeal pending before the Board of Immigration Appeals and there were irregularities in the case.
On Dec. 22, the Board of Immigration Appeals agreed to reconsider Gutiérrez's deportation order. Gutierrez and his son remain detained in ICE custody.
Asked for comment, ICE public affairs officer Leticia Zamarripa would only confirm that, “Emilio and Oscar Gutierrez, citizens of Mexico, remain in ICE custody pending disposition of their immigration cases.”
Beckett believes that by granting his client asylum, the United States would be promoting democracy.
“We’re in a time right now where journalists around the world are being threatened,” he said.
In October 2017, the National Press Club awarded Gutiérrez the Aubuchon Press Freedom Award, which honors journalists who demonstrate the principles of press freedom and transparency in governments through their work.
On March 5, 2018, Gutiérrez filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court, arguing that his detention was unconstitutional.
Gutiérrez claimed that ICE had targeted him for arrest in retaliation for his public criticism of U.S. immigration policy, in violation of his First Amendment rights.
On July 10, federal district judge David Guaderrama denied the government's motion to dismiss the case and scheduled an evidentiary hearing in the case for Aug. 1.
On July 26, 2018, less than a week before Gutiérrez was scheduled to testify in federal court, the government suddenly released him and his son from an ICE detention facility in El Paso, Texas.
"The release of Emilio and his son Oscar is a testament that our Federal Courts protect our Constitutional rights," Eduardo Beckett, Gutiérrez's attorney, told the Freedom of the Press Foundation in a statement. "The Constitution is not just an abstract written document but the cornerstone of our liberty and democracy."
Now that he is out of ICE detention, Gutiérrez plans to move to Michigan to pursue a year-long journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan.
Gutiérrez's asylum case is still ongoing.
On May 15, 2018, the Board of Immigration Appeals granted Gutiérrez's appeal and remanded the case back to Robert Hough — the immigration judge who originally denied Gutiérrez's asylum claim — with instructions to consider new evidence in the case and then make a new ruling.
A request for asylum from Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto and his son was again denied on Feb. 28, 2019, by the same El Paso immigration judge who had originally denied them asylum in July 2017.
Judge Robert Hough wrote in his ruling that Gutiérrez failed to show a high enough likeliness of being tortured upon return to Mexico. “The record lacks evidence that the respondent wrote any articles that denounce the corruption in Mexico,” according to Poynter.
Gutiérrez’s attorney has filed another appeal to the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals to challenge the decision. This appeal argues that Hough disregarded Gutiérrez’s testimony, witnesses, the condition of Mexico, and the murders of journalists in Mexico despite the protection of Mexican laws.
In March of this year, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, introduced a private bill, requesting an immigrant visa or a permanent residence status for Gutiérrez and his son, Oscar. Dingell, along with Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, wrote a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Gutiérrez’s behalf on the same date also urging asylum.
The bill is currently in the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. Gutiérrez and his son have been based in Michigan since the journalist was awarded the Knight-Wallace Fellowship for Journalists at the University of Michigan.