*This story has been updated to include context concerning the current environment for journalists in Mexico and to clarify the Dec. 7 events.
A Mexican journalist who waited eight years for an asylum hearing in the United States was saved by an emergency stay of deportation earlier this week shortly after officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) placed handcuffs on him and handed his lawyer a deportation order.
Speaking from an El Paso Processing Center, Emilio Gutiérrez Soto told the Knight Center on Dec. 13 that he felt “a sensation of greater stress still, of despair, of horror.”
However, as Gutiérrez has said throughout this process, he still has hope.
"I do have a lot of hope with the support of the lawyer and with the opinion of other lawyers who have shown solidarity, who are worried,” Gutiérrez said. “I feel that we will achieve the re-opening of our case and that we are finally going to achieve asylum.”
"Asylum is a condition of hope for everyone, for my son and for me but for many more people. I even believe that some reporters, well they avoided the steps that I went through and with it they obtained asylum," he said. “It's something that satisfies me, that it makes me feel good to have worked for something positive for others, but I would also like to share the same situation in which they find themselves with more tranquility and without having lost part of my health during this time.”
Gutiérrez, a former reporter at Diario del Noroeste in the state of Chihuahua, fled to the U.S. in June 2008 to claim asylum. He said he’d been told the Mexican military planned to kill him due to his reporting on alleged abuses against civilians by military members. Prior to fleeing the country, individuals self-identified as soldiers raided his home and held him at gunpoint, according to the former journalist.
Despite turning themselves into U.S. border officials, he and his son were detained and held separately; Emilio was detained for more than seven months and his son for a shorter period of time.
But at that point, Gutiérrez’ journey through the process of applying for asylum was just beginning.
Eight years after he arrived, he finally got his first merits hearing on Nov. 14, 2016. However, an El Paso immigration judge eventually denied his claim in July of the following year. An appeal of the decision was denied by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) in early November 2017.
Then on Nov. 16, Gutiérrez was called for a meeting with authorities. At the office, his lawyer was told they wanted to deport Gutiérrez. However, he was given an ankle monitor and released. That same day, lawyers filed a stay of removal with ICE and the original immigration judge in the case. On Nov. 17, the immigration judge denied the stay, but did not rule on a motion to reopen the case.
Lawyers filed a motion for stay, a motion to reopen and a motion to expedite with the BIA on Nov. 20. They hadn't received a decision from the BIA when ICE told Gutiérrez to report to its office on Dec. 7.
Authorities were going to give a decision on Gutierrez' application before ICE for a stay of removal, according to his lawyer Eduardo Beckett. They had been given assurances that authorities would allow the applications before BIA to continue, he said.
After arriving, authorities took Gutiérrez’ fingerprints and photographed him, Beckett explained. They told the former journalist and his son to put their hands behind their backs and they were handcuffed. His lawyer was given the deportation order.
While this happened, Beckett said he frantically attempted to call the BIA to notify them that Gutiérrez was in front of ICE authorities.
They had a small window since BIA rules require that the person requesting the stay is already in custody and facing imminent removal before an emergency stay request can be submitted. Also, BIA rules state that “an alien not in DHS custody must surrender to DHS custody, pursuant to a request by DHS, before an emergency stay will be considered by the Board.”
Unlike other cases he’s been involved with, Beckett said the officers didn’t wait for a decision from the BIA regarding the emergency stay. He finally got through to the board just as ICE left with both members of the Gutiérrez family and headed toward the U.S.-Mexico border, only a 15-minute drive away.
When Beckett finally heard from the BIA that the stay was granted, Gutiérrez and his son were sitting in detention at a Border Patrol station near a port of entry in El Paso, the lawyer explained.
There was a bad surprise waiting for the father and son when they arrived back at the ICE Processing Center: they were going to be detained. The father and son were eventually taken to a detention facility in Sierra Blanca, 90 miles southeast of El Paso. Then on Dec. 11, they were moved back to El Paso. Beckett still isn’t sure why.
Now, the lawyer said they’re asking for support from journalists and the community at-large.
“Freedom of the press is the cornerstone of democracy so we’ve got to protect our journalists whether it’s here in the U.S. or even in Mexico, because if there’s not a free press, then the people are not free,” Beckett told the Knight Center.
During a Dec. 11 press conference with the National Press Club, a Washington D.C.-based journalism organization, Gutiérrez said he has a death sentence.
“They are waiting for me. As soon as I am deported, I will be killed,” he said through his attorney, according to an NPC press release.
"Our life is dependent on this process. I ask all of you to please not abandon us, please," he added.
NPC said it and 20 other journalism organizations are supporting Gutiérrez.
“The burden of proof on those seeking asylum appears to be huge, virtually unattainable,” said John Donnelly, chairman of the Club’s Press Freedom Committee, according to the press release. “Emilio Gutiérrez is not making up the threats he faces. Does a reporter have to be shot before we believe him?”
A petition the club started to support Gutiérrez and stop his deportation has gained 12,381 signatures as of the afternoon of Dec. 15.
“We urge the U.S. government to find a place for him here in the States or allow him to transit to a third country where he will be safe,” the petition reads.
At least 11 journalists have been killed in Mexico in 2017. After a mission to the country in early December, special rapporteurs from the UN and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed serious concern for the violence and lack of sufficient protection facing journalists in the country, as well as the high level of impunity in cases of violence against journalists.
"Mexico is a democratic country and cannot continue with this dynamic of violence and murders of journalists," Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR, said at a press conference following the visit, as reported by El Universal. "When compared to Syria and other countries of the world where there is conflict and authoritarianism, we believe Mexico is worse off, because it is a democracy that, in many senses, aspires to be a developed country."
ICE has not answered requests from the Knight Center for information on Gutierrez' case.