Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto again requested asylum for himself and his son in an El Paso immigration court, 10 years after they turned themselves into a checkpoint at the U.S.-Mexico border and more than a year after their claim was denied.
“I must implore you for my life,” Gutiérrez said to Judge Robert Hough on Oct. 22, according to a press release from the National Press Club, which is one of the organizations that has been supporting Gutiérrez.
Two days following the hearing –which was delayed due to missing documents, according to Gutiérrez's lawyer– the journalist told the Knight Center that he felt the judge was “playing with [their] lives.”
It has been a long road of postponements, denials and detentions for Gutiérrez and his son who fled Chihuahua in 2008 out of fear for their lives. The journalist said he was told members of the Mexican military were angry with his reporting and were planning to kill him.
A Jan. 2005 article by Gutiérrez in El Diario reported that six members of the Army and a civilian assaulted and robbed hotel guests and threatened them with death.
Army soldiers allegedly threatened Gutiérrez in February 2005 and raided his house in May 2008, according to what the journalist previously told publication Mother Jones.
Eduardo Beckett, Gutiérrez’s attorney, told the Knight Center that as part of the journalist’s case, they are pointing to Mexico as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists and that conditions in that country have not improved. Additionally, Beckett noted failures of the Mexican Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, which almost ran out of money this year.
They also are arguing that Gutiérrez’s profile has changed over the course of the past decade.
“We believe in good faith that now, after 10 years of him speaking out, criticizing the government, conducting speaking engagements from coast-to-coast, that his profile is much higher now,” Beckett said.
The lawyer emphasized that they believe there’s a risk of him being killed to send a message to other journalists that if they leave for the U.S. and make criticisms from abroad, they will be killed upon returning home.
Oct. 22 was not the first time Gutiérrez has presented his case before Hough. The judge denied Gutiérrez’s asylum request in July 2017 and months later the journalist and his son were nearly deported in December 2017. An emergency stay stopped the process.
The two then spent seven months in detention with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement before being released on July 26, 2018.
In May, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) ordered a new petition hearing, which is what took place on Oct. 22. In its decision, the board remanded the case “for consideration of newly available, material evidence.”
On Monday, Hough brought attorneys for Gutiérrez and DHS into his chambers to look at Gutiérrez’s file, according to Beckett. Gutiérrez’s lawyer said he noted that documents filed with the appeals court were missing, including UN reports, letters of support and old articles by Gutiérrez.
“They called us at 8:30 in the morning and by then he had already lost the instructions that the appeals court gave him in the sense that he revise the case, that he see his failures and that he accept the new evidence,” Gutiérrez said. “He had not read the evidence nor the decision that the court of appeals had given, which I consider is an irresponsibility, a lack of ethics, a lack of professionalism, an immorality of the judge. I consider him a boor. He is playing with our lives. And I will not permit it. The judge is not the last word.”
Once the documents were recreated, the hearing proceeded hours later with Lynette Clemetson, director of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan, where Gutiérrez is presently a fellow.
According to the NPC, Clemetson spoke about the journalist’s qualifications and the dangers she believes he would face in Mexico. However, the NPC reported the government attempted to have her excluded from the proceedings.
Then, Gutiérrez also had his turn to speak for himself and for his son, Óscar: “He has been the victim of the work of an honest journalist,” Gutiérrez said, according to the NPC.
Gutiérrez’s team had also filed an expert opinion from the Committee to Protect Journalists, other letters of support and a congressional report on journalists, according to Beckett. The lawyer said he understood the judge would not consider those documents, nor the testimony from Gutiérrez and Clemetson.
Gutiérrez said he does not have hope with this judge.
“In advance we already know. He was very clear in saying that his decision was not going to change,” the journalist said.
As Gutiérrez now resides in Michigan, his lawyers had requested a change in venue to that state. The judge denied the change, but an appeal to change the venue is still before the BIA, according to Beckett.
Gutiérrez’s lawyer has been critical of what he thinks is the judge’s lack of impartiality in this case.
“I believe that he has it in for Emilio Gutiérrez Soto,” Beckett said. “I believe that he appears to me to not be too happy that he was overturned and that he’s digging in his heels, for lack of a better word.”
According to Beckett, he has until Nov. 27 to file a brief in the asylum case and the government has until Dec. 20 to respond, and he added that the judge said he will issue his opinion in January.
If his asylum request is denied, Gutiérrez has the right to an appeal.
For now, he is continuing his fellowship in Michigan and is studying U.S. history on civil rights and immigration in the law school. His son, who wants to be a chef, is training at a reputable local restaurant.
The Knight Center was not able to reach lawyers representing the State. When the Center contacted the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) for a comment from Hough, it said it does not comment on judge’s decisions.
“Please note that immigration judges adjudicate the matters before them on a case-by-case basis, according to U.S. immigration law, regulations and precedent decisions,” said Rob Barnes, regional public information officer with the EOIR. “Immigration judges consider all evidence and arguments presented by both parties and decide each case based on that information.”