Journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto is a man who believes he's been persecuted by two nations. He fled threats by the military in his native Mexico a decade ago to seek asylum in the U.S. where he has now been detained by immigration authorities twice. He was released from his second detention in El Paso, Texas last week, just hours before a federal judge's deadline for the government to produce documents justifying the detention.
At a black-tie gala hosted by the National Press Club in Washington D.C. last October, Gutiérrez stood before an audience of his peers to accept an award on behalf of the Mexican press, which works in one of the deadliest countries for reporters. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 15 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2017.
In his speech, Gutiérrez admonished his homeland for failing to protect his journalist colleagues and labeled the U.S. government hypocritical for promoting human rights abroad but denying them to immigrants and asylum seekers at home.
Nine weeks later, on a snowy December day, federal officers in El Paso handcuffed Gutiérrez, 55, and his son Oscar, 25, during a routine immigration check-in and put them in car bound for the international border.
"I think he was targeted," said Eduardo Beckett, Gutiérrez's attorney. "He was targeted for being a journalist, for being Mexican, for being outspoken, for criticizing the U.S. government and the asylum process for many years."
Gutiérrez's original asylum request had been denied months earlier. But he was appealing that denial with the Board of Immigration Appeals, the BIA. So, when Gutiérrez and his son were picked up and headed to the border, Beckett phoned the BIA and secured an emergency stay stopping the deportation. Instead Gutiérrez and his son were detained for a second time.
Emails later unearthed by Gutiérrez's defense team show ICE had flagged him well before his initial denial of asylum. His name appeared on a target list typically reserved for fugitives.
"So the question is, why? Why him? He's not a fugitive, he's not a criminal...he didn't have warrants," Beckett said. "So, there was no legitimate law enforcement reason why he was on that list."
After Gutiérrez's December arrest, the National Press Club began an online petition denouncing the detention and national media attention quickly followed. The club's executive director, Bill McCarren, visited Gutiérrez in detention two weeks later, followed by a meeting with ICE officials. At that meeting, McCarren said ICE's chief counsel for the El Paso sector told him to quote "tone it down" with regards to Gutiérrez's case. McCarren recounted the encounter in sworn testimony before a federal judge.
In an emailed statement to the Texas Tribune, ICE described the meeting with McCarren as cordial. William P. Joyce, the acting field office director in El Paso, said, "At no time was it stated, suggested or hinted that media reporting of this case be 'toned down'."
ICE didn't respond to NPR's inquiry about why Gutiérrez's name appeared on the fugitive target list months before his asylum request was denied.
"All these red flags can only logically conclude that (the authorities) have it in for Emilio," Beckett said. "Under the Trump administration they felt empowered that they can violate the law, violate the constitution, and get away with it. Because now they had the President of the United States backing them up, saying you can take off the gloves."
A federal judge in El Paso reviewed the circumstances surrounding Gutiérrez's December arrest and agreed that the journalist may have been unlawfully targeted. In a 26-page order for a hearing on the matter, Judge David Guaderrama wrote the following:
"Petitioners have offered evidence that allows for an inference that they were targeted before their asylum case was denied and ICE officials did not approve of the negative press that Petitioners were generating... there is support for Petitioners' claim that Respondents' retaliated against them for asserting their free press rights."
Guaderrama also ordered ICE to turn in additional documents and correspondence regarding Gutiérrez's arrest. But after the agency released Gutiérrez and his son last Thursday, ICE was no longer obligated to comply with the order and the hearing to review the additional documents was cancelled.
Gutiérrez and his son fled Mexico together in 2008. He claims the military threatened him for writing articles in a small-town paper about soldiers robbing a hotel. He was detained for seven months after arriving at the U.S. port of entry in Antelope Wells, N.M. Molly Molloy, an American friend of Gutiérrez, complied an archive of his work to present as evidence in court.
"After he flees the government in Mexico that's persecuting him, he comes here and is...essentially persecuted yet again by our own government," she said.
On the night of his release, friends joyfully embraced Gutiérrez in the parking lot of his attorney's office. Before a semi-circle of news cameras, he again impugned the U.S. immigration system, calling the detention facility a "modern-day concentration camp" that destroys its captives psychologically.
"I share in the pain of immigrants who simply arrive to this country fleeing for their lives, he said. "My son has been my inspiration. He's given me the strength to endure."
Meanwhile Gutiérrez's pursuit of asylum continues. The first hearing in his appeal is scheduled later this month, before the same judge who rejected his plea last year.
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