‘Justice took time, but it came,' says Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, who was granted U.S. asylum after 15-year battle

In an historic victory for press freedom and the safety of journalists at risk, Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto will be granted asylum in the United States. After a 15-year battle against deportation to Mexico, a country where his life was under threat due to his work as a journalist, Gutiérrez Soto was declared eligible for asylum by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), according to an opinion issued on Sept. 5, 2023.

“We only wanted Lady Justice to show up. And Lady Justice, after a long process, she took a long time, but she came. And it’s something we celebrate," Gutiérrez Soto told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) after the ruling was announced. "I am somewhat disconcerted, I have not yet absorbed the magnitude of the judges' decision, which I am very grateful for because they took into account that throughout the process I was speaking with the truth and with evidence.”

Gutierrez Soto’s asylum claim had been denied twice before, and he and his son faced the threat of deportation over the past 15 years. The immigration judge in El Paso appointed to the case did not believe that Gutiérrez Soto was a journalist facing danger in Mexico.

Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto poses outdoors.

Emilio Gutiérrez Soto arrived in the United States in 2008 and, since then, he has faced detentions, legal obstacles and threats of deportation. (Photo: Courtesy of Lynette Clemetson)

In 2019, Gutiérrez Soto’s lawyer, Eduardo Beckett, took the case to the BIA, and the journalist was able to remain in the U.S. while his case was being reviewed. In the Sept. 5 opinion, a panel formed by three judges concluded that the El Paso immigration judge’s decisions were “erroneous” and decided to overturn them.

“[Gutiérrez Soto] has demonstrated why the Immigration Judge's credibility and lack of corroboration concerns are unsupported in the context of the totality of the available evidence in the record and objective evidence of the country’s conditions in Mexico,” the document states. “The defendant’s claim has likewise been corroborated by numerous letters and extensive declarations in support of the defendant, as well as witnesses who testified on his behalf. As such, we overturn the Immigration Judge's unfavorable credibility resolutions as clearly erroneous.”

According to Gutiérrez Soto’s attorney, this decision is far-reaching, since it is highly uncommon for an immigration judge’s decision on an asylum case to be overturned. Robert Hough, the immigration judge in charge of the case, denied 95.6 percent of the asylum cases that he ruled on between 2017 and 2022, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data research center at Syracuse University.

“What the Board of Appeals did, don't you believe it's just anything. It's a big deal. It's very rare for the Board of Appeals to say 'the judge made a mistake' on the issue of Emilio's credibility," Beckett told LJR. "Normally, it's very hard to change when the judge says 'I don't believe you, you have no credibility, I think you're lying' [...]. The judge didn't believe Emilio, he questioned all his motives, but the Board of Appeals said 'there's so much evidence in this case, how can it not [be true]?' Because independently, everything Emilio said was substantiated.”

The BIA is the highest administrative body in the U.S. responsible for the interpretation and application of  immigration laws. Its decisions are binding on all Department of Homeland Security officers and immigration judges, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

“I really expected [the decision of the Board of Appeals] to be unfavorable, [because of] so many years of the legal case, you get discouraged. I think that is part of what [the immigration authorities] would like, for you to get discouraged and leave, but since there were no alternatives, there was nothing left but to endure, resist and persist,” the journalist said.

A long, uncertain road

Gutiérrez Soto entered the U.S. in June 2008 at the age of 45, seeking refuge for himself and his then 15-year-old son from the dangers the journalist faced in Mexico as a result of his reporting. Initially, immigration officials ruled that Gutiérrez Soto had a credible fear of going back to Mexico and allowed him to remain in the country while his case was settled, according to a National Press Club’s statement.

The journalist fled his hometown of Ascension, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, after he was threatened by military officials and his home was raided without a warrant, allegedly as a result of a feature story on the military’s wrongdoing. A few days later, Gutiérrez Soto received a warning that “a hit had been put out on him.”

In July of 2017, after a long road of delays, denials and detentions for Gutiérrez Soto and his son, Judge Hough denied the asylum claim, in part because he did not believe that Gutiérrez Soto was a journalist. The judge didn’t accept as evidence the more than 100 newspaper clips from Gutiérrez Soto’s career as a reporter that were part of the case, because they were in Spanish.

That year, Gutiérrez Soto accepted the National Press Club’s John Aubuchon Press Freedom award in Washington D.C. on behalf of Mexican journalists. Two months after his acceptance speech at the ceremony, in which he was outspoken about U.S. immigration policies towards Mexicans, Gutiérrez Soto was unexpectedly detained by immigration officials, who drove him toward the border with Mexico for deportation.

Although an emergency stay request from the BIA halted the deportation, Gutiérrez Soto and his son were put in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center, where they spent seven months.

The BIA ordered a new hearing to consider new evidence on the asylum case, but in February 2019 Judge Hough again denied the petition, ruling that Gutiérrez Soto was “not a credible witness” and that there wasn’t enough testimony or evidence to show the journalist had been persecuted in Mexico or would be persecuted if he went back.

It was after that hearing that the support from activists, legislators and organizations played a key role in Gutiérrez Soto’s case. More than 20 professional press organizations, such as the National Press Club and the Pulitzer Center, signed friend-of-the-court briefs. The Rutgers University International Law Clinic filed a habeas corpus case on Gutiérrez Soto’s to advocate for him before the court, and other journalists and organizations sent numerous letters and statements in support of Gutierrez Soto’s asylum request.

“When people say 'congratulations,' my reply is 'I didn't win it [the case]. We won it as a team, along with many other people, other lawyers, and organizations. This case was won with many people’s help," Beckett said. "We had the support of the National Press Club, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, and so many people who supported this case. Sadly, not everyone who seeks asylum is going to have the support Emilio had.”

According to the National Press Club, this BIA opinion is significant and could help other threatened journalists seeking asylum because it acknowledges that journalists like Gutiérrez Soto belong to a recognizable group that is being singled out for persecution.

Although the ruling is not slated for publication by the court, Beckett believes that all the efforts and legal actions implemented in Gutiérrez Soto’s case could have a huge impact on other journalists’ asylum applications.

“It's not a published case, but a reporter from Mexico or any country could use it if the circumstances were similar to Emilio's," Beckett said. "What the Board of Appeals also said is that Emilio was a very public person, who moreover criticized the Mexican government while in Mexico, and when he was here, he also continued to criticize both the U.S. and Mexican governments.”

What comes next?

After the BIA’s decision, Gutiérrez Soto will have to appear before immigration authorities in El Paso to have his biometric data run to get the order granting him asylum.

According to Beckett, Gutiérrez Soto will have the status of asylee, which allows him to work and live in the U.S. After one year, he can apply for permanent residence.

Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto delivers a speech.

More than 20 press organizations, such as the National Press Club, sent letters and advocated for Gutiérrez Soto in court. (Photo: Screenshot of the National Press Club's YouTube)

Gutiérrez Soto has been working in a farm in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he chose to remain after the 2018-19 Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan ended, while he waited for news about the progress of his case.

Gutiérrez Soto said that he intends to stay in Ann Arbor to conclude his work commitments on the farm, but after that, he will figure out ways to resume his work as a journalist.

“I really have to process all this. I have to sit down and talk with my son and the people I work with, and then make the most important decision: What will my next step be," he said. "I’ve thought about going back somehow to journalism. I think I could also receive some invitations to talk about my experience with other colleagues. [...] I have to start outlining what my next life project is going to be.”

Although for the past 15 years Gutiérrez Soto hasn’t been officially active as a journalist, he thinks that his experience can serve as a resource for journalistic projects about how the U.S. immigration system works. He believes his experience is a different way to contribute to journalism.

“Someone once said to me 'you are no longer a journalist because you are no longer active.' And I said that a journalist never stops being a journalist, even if he is inactive, even if he is not working in the media," he said. "As journalists, we never stop having an opinion, an argument, a criticism, some public expression, and I have continued to do so.”