National Press Club

Groundbreaking decision for asylum-seekers gives National Press Club award winner his day in court

July 11, 2018 | By Kathy Kiely |

Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto spoke in October 2017 after accepting the National Press Club's Aubuchon Freedom of the Press award.

Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto spoke in October 2017 after accepting the National Press Club's Aubuchon Freedom of the Press award.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

A federal judge is challenging the government’s detention of a National Press Club award-winner, saying there is “enough evidence” to suggest that immigration officials violated the First Amendment rights of Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto and his son, Oscar.

In a 26-page order filed Tuesday, Judge David Guaderrama of El Paso cited constitutional protections of free speech and press freedom in raising concerns about immigration officials’ treatment of Gutiérrez, who entered the country legally 10 years ago seeking asylum after his reporting on official corruption in his home country made him the target of death threats.

The government had asked Guaderrama to dismiss a writ of habeas corpus, filed by the Rutgers University Law School’s clinic on international human rights, to free Gutiérrez and his son. Instead, the judge set an Aug. 1 hearing date. Gutiérrez has been offered a prestigious Knight Wallace fellowship at the University of Michigan, but he can only accept it if he is free from detention by the time the program begins this fall.

Lawyers for Gutiérrez believe the judge’s order carries far-reaching implications not only for his case, but for those of other asylum seekers.

“This is a really important First Amendment opinion,” said Penny Venetis, the Rutgers University law professor who authored the writ seeking immediate release of the two men. She said it protects “the right of asylum seekers to exercise their free speech rights.

“It’s a win for the press for sure,” said Eduardo Beckett, an El Paso immigration attorney who has argued that Gutiérrez and his son were targeted, first by the Mexican government and then by the Trump administration, for his work as a journalist.

In scheduling a hearing on the writ, Guaderrama cited several factors as raising concerns:

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement official’s admonition that the National Press Club should “tone it down” during a meeting in which club Executive Director Bill McCarren made a personal plea for Gutiérrez’s release;

  • An email exchange, turned up by a National Press Club Freedom of Information Act request, that suggests ICE officials had targeted the Mexican journalist for arrest within weeks of President Donald Trump’s election;
  • He also said that the timing of Gutiérrez’s arrest, just weeks after the journalist criticized U.S. treatment of asylum-seekers in an appearance at the National Press Club, raises concerns that immigration officials “retaliated…for Mr. Gutiérrez-Soto’s remarks.”

“Pure political speech is entitled to the highest First Amendment protection,” Guaderrama said in his order.

Gutiérrez arrived in the United States in 2008 through a legal port of entry, requesting asylum, along with his then-15-year-old son. He fled his home in Mexico after being threatened multiple times for his reporting on corrupt government officials. After initially separating father and son and detaining them for eight months, ICE officials in 2009 agreed they had “credible fear” of returning to their home country and allowed them to remain in the United States while their case was being adjudicated.

In October, 2017, the Mexican journalist accepted the Aubuchon Freedom of the Press award on behalf of journalists in Mexico, now one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

Nearly 20 professional press organizations and human rights groups have joined the National Press Club in calling on the U.S. government to free Gutiérrez and grant him asylum.