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Mexican Journalist Granted US Asylum After 15-Year Journey

Emilio Gutierrez Soto came to the National Press Club on Wednesday with a message of gratitude. Press freedom advocates came with a call to action.

The 60-year-old journalist fled with his son to the U.S.-Mexico border in 2008 seeking asylum after receiving death threats because of his reporting on Mexican military corruption.

After 15 years, the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled in favor of Gutierrez Soto.

He still needs to go in front of an immigration judge in March 2024 to receive his asylum papers, but his immigration lawyer said his case has been resolved. 

At an event in Washington to highlight his case, Gutierrez Soto was smiling, shaking hands with other journalists, and at times holding back tears as he thanked the people who helped him along the way. 

“These fifteen years have been terrible. … I feel profoundly grateful for everyone here,” Gutierrez Soto said. 

The ruling was a win for the National Press Club and more than 20 other journalism organizations who joined his legal fight.

Press freedom advocates and first amendment lawyers say Gutierrez Soto’s journey offers a case study in how press freedom cases are often overlooked as a priority in the United States.

And they want better protections for at-risk journalists who have to come to the U.S. for safety reasons.

Press freedom advocates recommend sending court watchers to immigration asylum hearings, creating a legal taskforce of First Amendment experts willing to take on the asylum cases of journalists, and producing a database of these experts around the country so at-risk reporters can easily connect with them.

“These experts should be all over the country because they know the system of various judges, immigration judges and federal judges,” said Rutgers University law professor Penny Venetis, who was also one of Gutierrez Soto’s attorneys. 

They also said more media attention on cases of journalists at risk is needed.

“Publicize all cases. I think a big part of this [win] was that it was constantly in the press,” Venetis said. 

Experts involved in Gutierrez Soto’s case on Wednesday talked about ideas to develop a team of experts that can file amicus briefs in every single immigration case involving a journalist and to require immigration judges to be trained in specific subject areas so that they can process immigration cases faster. 

“[Gutierrez Soto’s] case was pending for 15 years. It should not have been. It was a slam dunk case. There should be a group of immigration judges that only handle cases related to journalists,” Venetis said. 

According to Kathy Kiely, National Press Club freedom fellow and the Lee Hills chair in free-press studies at University of Missouri, one of the ways to support at-risk journalists is by advocating for a special visa for human rights workers and journalists. 

“This is in place in Canada. They started with 250 [visas] and they’ve now doubled it to 500 special visas a year. And it gives people at least a three-year runway, so they know they have legal status, they can work,” she said. 

The U.S. does not have a humanitarian visa category. 

Gutierrez Soto’s case

Gutierrez Soto and his son, Oscar, came to the U.S.-Mexico border in 2008 requesting asylum.

At that time, he had been working as a journalist, writing articles about the military forces robbing and extorting people in Chihuahua, which borders New Mexico and part of Texas.

Gutierrez Soto said he received death threats because of those articles and feared being targeted if he stayed in Mexico.

Following their arrival, father and son, who was then 15, were separated. His son went on to stay with relatives in the U.S. while Gutierrez Soto remained in immigration detention for several months. After he was released, he settled in New Mexico where he and his son lived for nine years while his asylum process wound through immigration courts. 

But in 2017 that asylum claim was denied by immigration Judge Robert Hough who ruled Gutierrez Soto did not present sufficient evidence to prove he was targeted for his journalistic work or that his life would be in danger if he returned to Mexico. 

Hough seemed unconvinced that he was a journalist. He denied the asylum claim and ruled that Gutierrez Soto could be removed from the United States.

The Press Club and immigration advocates stepped in to help in 2017 and were able to stop his deportation. 

Shortly after that, Gutierrez Soto received the John Aubuchon award, the club’s highest honor for press freedom. 

Years went by as his case went through the U.S. immigration courts. Then, on September 5, a three-judge appeals panel said Gutierrez Soto had a reasonable and well-founded fear of returning to Mexico because of his articles exposing the corruption of the Mexican military.

They also said the initial judge in his case twice had ruled in error to deport Gutierrez Soto.

The Mexican journalist was working on a Michigan farm when he first learned that his asylum request was finally approved. 

Kiely hopes his case helps to grow support and advocacy for other at-risk journalists and protect freedom of the press. 

“We need to really, collectively as a profession, begin to point out to policymakers, how much you lose when you waste time, resources and money on a case like Emilio’s that should have been decided years ago and how much we can gain if we enabled the journalists to do their jobs,” Kiely said.  

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