The alarming case of Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto has reached a critical stage. It’s not an overstatement to say his life could hang in the balance.
Two congressional representatives from Michigan are trying to make sure Gutiérrez, 56, won’t be deported from the United States back to his native Mexico, where many feel he will be harmed or even killed because of his reporting on drug cartels.
It’s difficult to understand why his efforts to gain asylum in the United States have been denied.
“He’s a journalist and the threats against him have been pretty well documented,” Alexandra Ellerbeck, the North American program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Poynter. “He has gone through hell with his prolonged detention … and has some real fears about going back to Mexico. The government of Mexico cannot guarantee his safety.”
Last month, an immigration judge in Texas rejected Gutiérrez’s latest application for asylum, saying he failed to show that he would be targeted if he returned to Mexico.
The decision is being appealed. U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Congressman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) wrote a letter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on behalf of Gutiérrez, who is a 2018-19 Knight-Wallace Fellowship for Journalists at the University of Michigan. The representatives wrote:
“The University of Michigan community, members of the media, advocates for press freedom around the country, and many Americans continue to share our deep concerns about Mr. Gutiérrez Soto’s safety should he return to Mexico. Mexico remains the deadliest country for journalists worldwide that is not engaged in armed conflict, and two journalists have already been murdered in the country this year. Given this set of facts, along with the legitimate documented concerns surrounding Mr. Gutiérrez Soto’s safety, we strongly support his request for asylum.”
Gutiérrez fled Mexico in 2008 with his son, Oscar, who was 15 at the time. Gutiérrez was reporting on drug cartels and corrupt Mexican military officials. Because of that, he told the Washington Post, he routinely faced death threats.
“We would have nothing if we stayed: no home, no work, no family,” he told the Post. “It was my last chance. It was the only option I had.”
Gutiérrez was held in a detention center for seven months until January of 2009 when he was released as a parolee and reunited with Oscar, who had been sent to a juvenile detention center. They made a life for themselves in New Mexico and, according to CNN, worked in the restaurant industry while continuing the asylum process.
Then, in July of 2017, Gutiérrez was denied asylum and might have been deported had it not been for press freedom advocates stepping in on his behalf. In December of 2017, Gutiérrez and his son were detained by ICE and held in a detention center until July of 2018 when they were released and allowed to relocate to Ann Arbor, Michigan. During that time, Gutiérrez had filed another appeal.
But last month, Judge Robert Hough denied that appeal and called for Gutiérrez’s deportation (Hough serves in the El Paso Immigration Court, under the jurisdiction of Department of Justice.) In his decision, Hough wrote:
“The respondent failed to show that it is more likely than not that he would be subjected to torture upon his return to Mexico. The record lacks evidence that the respondent wrote any articles that denounce the corruption in Mexico.”
Hough’s decision has been criticized because Gutiérrez wrote articles that alleged military forces were robbing and extorting Mexican citizens.
Lynette Clemetson, director of Wallace House at the University of Michigan, was quoted in the Michigan Daily as saying eight journalists were murdered in Mexico last year and two more have been murdered this year. Reporters Without Borders have confirmed those numbers, adding that only Afghanistan has seen more journalists murdered in the past year. Commenting on the judge’s ruling, Clemetson said, “Anyone with even the most minimal knowledge of the current situation in Mexico knows that this is absurd.”
Ellerbeck said getting asylum cases approved is difficult, especially for those coming from Mexico. But, she added, Gutiérrez’s case should have been compelling enough to keep him in the United States.
“It has been surprising and troubling to us how difficult the asylum process has been,” Ellerbeck said. “Mexico is the deadliest country in the hemisphere for journalists so the concern of violence is very real and very severe.”
Ellerbeck said CPJ continues to work with other advocacy groups to keep Gutiérrez Soto and his son from being deported.
“We’re regrouping now and seeing what the next step is,” Ellerbeck said.
Gutiérrez remains in Michigan after his attorney filed yet another appeal to the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals.