Journalists are rallying to the defense of Mexican reporter Emilio Gutiérrez Soto who narrowly escaped being deported last Thursday after being picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) despite being in asylum proceedings.
Gutiérrez Soto, 54, has been seeking asylum in the United States since he fled Mexico in June 2008 after receiving death threats related to his reporting on drug cartels and military corruption. ICE agents detained him last week and began taking him and his 24-year-old son to the U.S. border with Mexico, according to local media and the group Reporters Without Borders (RWB).
Only an urgent stay of removal granted by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), which handles asylum cases, prevented his deportation, the group said.
The father and son remain detained at the Sierra Blanca detention centre in El Paso, Texas.
"We are depressed. We've been in bed practically the whole time, "Gutiérrez Soto said during a press conference organized in Washington D.C. by the National Press Club.
His lawyer told Univision that the ICE tactics seemed designed to force him to accept his return to Mexico. But Gutiérrez Soto that he will not give up because "our lives depend" on the asylum process.
"If at any given moment I have to go on a hunger strike I will do it because our moral principles are greater than the criminal degree to which they are treating us," he said during the conference broadcast on the Internet. "We're not going to crack."
In a statement, ICE officials said “Gutiérrez remains in ICE custody pending disposition of his immigration case.”
“Pending a final decision by the BIA, we call on the U.S. authorities to grant Emilio Gutiérrez Soto an immediate conditional release,” said Margaux Ewen, the head of RSF’s North America bureau.
Emmanuel Colombié of RSF’s Latin America bureau added: “Emilio should be granted asylum. A return to Mexico, which is structurally violent and where journalists are regularly targeted, is out of the question for him.”
Gutiérrez, who reported for the El Diario del Noroeste in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, spent seven months in an immigration detention centre there prior to his released in January 2009 pending the outcome of his asylum application.
The former reporter and his son fled his home country in June 2008 after someone notified him that the military was planning to kill him. It apparently stemmed from his reporting on alleged abuses against civilians by members of the military, according to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin.
His asylum request was denied in July this year and a subsequent appeal was also denied in November. His lawyer had filed a second appeal.
Gutiérrez Soto is an award-winning journalist who was honored at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. less than two months ago with the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award on behalf of all Mexican journalists who face life threatening situations for reporting that in the United States is considered well within the bounds of ethical journalism.
In an October press release, the National Press Club said Gutiérrez said “he and his Mexican associates ‘find [themselves] immersed in a great darkness,’ as reporters are killed, kidnapped and forced into hiding in retaliation for their reporting on drug cartels and government corruption.”
With at least 11 journalists murdered in 2017, Mexico is the world’s second deadliest country for the media, after Syria.