By Uriel J. Garcia, The Texas Tribune
A Mexican journalist who fled Chihuahua to the United States after he received death threats over his stories about military corruption has won his political asylum case after a 15-year legal fight and two stints in federal custody.
Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, who now works at a farm in Michigan, and his son Oscar fled their country in 2008 when Gutiérrez Soto’s reporting led to threats against him by members of the Mexican military. Robert Hough, an immigration judge in El Paso, denied Gutiérrez Soto’s asylum request twice, but on Sept. 5, a three-judge appeals panel said Hough was “clearly erroneous.”
In a five-page opinion, the panel said that Gutiérrez Soto’s “subjective fear of persecution upon return to Mexico is objectively reasonable and well-founded.” The panel also wrote that Gutiérrez Soto “came to the attention of the Mexican military because he wrote articles that were critical of and expose the corruption of the military.”
Gutiérrez Soto had missed phone calls from his lawyer. So Lynette Clemetson, director of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and a close friend, drove to the farm where Gutiérrez Soto works to deliver the news in person.
“You won,” Clemetson told him.
“Won what?” he responded.
“Your asylum case,” she said.
It took a few seconds for him to realize what he was hearing.
“My first reaction was to be in disbelief,” he said. “Then it sunk in that it was a reality and I was in shock.”
For asylum-seekers, getting a resolution in their asylum cases takes an average of five years — and a majority lose their cases. Gutiérrez Soto’s case landed before Hough, who has a 95.6% denial rate, the highest among El Paso’s six immigration judges, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University.
Now that he is out of his long legal limbo and legally living in the U.S., Gutiérrez Soto said he needs to figure out, at 60, what his future will look like. For now, he plans to continue working on the farm — he said he promised his bosses that he would finish some projects before the end of the year.
His son Oscar, who was 15 when they fled Chihuahua, is now 30 and recently married a U.S. citizen — he can receive legal status as the spouse of a citizen, so the asylum ruling no longer applies to him.
“What can you do when you’re in love?” Gutiérrez Soto said in a phone interview. “You simply can’t stand in the way of life.”
For more than a decade, the father and son were in legal limbo and couldn’t make long-term plans because they could be deported at any time.
“It hurt me,” he said, “but I don’t regret leaving Mexico so I could protect my son’s life.”
Journalists from Canada to Peru offered their support while he fought to stay in the U.S., including the National Press Club and student journalists at the University of Michigan, who helped translate over 100 of Gutiérrez Soto’s news articles into English to use as evidence in his asylum case.
“As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ We saw this with Emilio,” said National Press Club President Eileen O’Reilly. “On behalf of the many past presidents, press freedom team and members of the Press Club who continued the fight during Emilio’s long ordeal, I praise the Board of Immigration Appeals for its decision and urge immigration officials to expedite asylum requests for the many journalists who are forced to leave their homes to continue their very important work.”
Gutiérrez Soto started his journalism career as a photographer and later began to write briefs for newspapers in Ciudad Juárez. Before long, he was covering crime and corruption in one of the country’s most violent cities.
In 2005, while working for a newspaper in a city 120 miles southwest of El Paso, Gutiérrez Soto wrote a story about a group of Mexican soldiers who had robbed a group of migrants — then wrote a follow-up story about the threat he received from the Army about the first article.
In May 2008, soldiers carrying machine guns raided his home, claiming they were searching for drugs — they didn’t find any. A source later told Gutiérrez Soto that the military wanted him dead.
That episode scared Gutiérrez Soto, who in June 2008 fled with his teenage son to a U.S. port of entry in New Mexico, where Gutiérrez Soto asked for asylum.
They were initially held in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in El Paso for several months before being released. They lived with friends in El Paso and in New Mexico before moving to Michigan where Gutiérrez Soto was awarded a yearlong fellowship. He also wrote briefly for a Spanish-language newspaper, El Diario de El Paso, and freelanced for national outlets in the U.S.
But mostly he focused on pursuing his asylum case and giving speeches across the country about the dangers that Mexican journalists face when they write about government corruption, he said.
Nine years later, Hough denied their asylum request in July 2017, saying he didn’t believe Gutiérrez Soto was a journalist. Gutiérrez Soto appealed the decision.
In October 2017, he received a press freedom award from the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he made some critical comments about the U.S. immigration process. That December, he and his son made a routine check-in with immigration officials in El Paso and were arrested and processed for deportation — while their appeal of Hough’s ruling was still pending.
The National Press Club provided legal support to the father and son because it believed immigration authorities retaliated against Gutiérrez Soto over his comments about the U.S. immigration system, according to a news release by the organization.
After the Press Club intervened, the Board of Immigration Appeals in May 2018 asked Hough to reconsider the case because Gutiérrez Soto had presented new evidence. Two months later, father and son were released from immigration custody.
In February 2019, Hough again denied their asylum request, saying any fears that Gutiérrez Soto had were “merely speculative” since it had been a decade since he fled Mexico, according to an Associated Press story.
Gutiérrez Soto appealed that decision as well.
In 2018, he was awarded the Knight-Wallace Fellowship, which took him to the University of Michigan. The one-year fellowship, awarded to accomplished journalists, included on-campus housing and a $70,000 stipend. At the end of that year, Gutiérrez Soto began working at the farm in Ann Arbor where he has lived ever since 2018 — and where his son also lived until he met his future wife.
Now that the appeals panel has granted him asylum, Gutiérrez Soto can apply for permanent residency, also known as a green card, after a year.
“I remember my son once told me: ‘We came together, we leave together,’” he said.
Instead, they will both be able to permanently stay together in the U.S., he said.