National Press Club

National Press Club award-winning journalist to judge who denied him asylum: "I must implore you for my life"

October 23, 2018 | By Lindsay Underwood | lunderwood@press.org

Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto's hand rests atop his case files as he awaits a hearing that his life may depend on.

Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto's hand rests atop his case files as he awaits a hearing that his life may depend on.

After eight hours of waiting outside an immigration courtroom, journalist Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto on Monday had an opportunity to make a personal appeal to the judge who last year ordered him deported to the country where he has been threatened with death. The hearing was delayed when Gutiérrez's attorney discovered that the judge had not read or seen crucial evidence on the journalist's behalf.

"I must implore you for my life," Gutiérrez told Judge Robert Hough, adding that he was also appealing for his son, Oscar, who fled to the United States as a teenager with his father after the veteran Mexican journalist's exposés of military corruption made him the target of death threats.

"He has been the victim of the work of an honest journalist," Gutiérrez said, as he gazed from the judge to his now 25-year-old son.

Hough said he is not sure whether he will consider the testimony in his deliberations on the case, which has drawn widespread attention and support for Gutiérrez from journalism organizations and free speech advocates across the globe. The judge said he will issue a ruling sometime in January, after attorneys for the Gutiérrezes and the U.S. government file written arguments in the case.

The case was reopened after the National Press Club, along with 18 other journalism organizations, joined an appeal of Hough's deportation order, which questioned Gutiérrez's credentials as a journalist and argued that the government of Mexico could protect him if he were. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed before the Board of Immigration Appeals, the journalism groups produced scores of news stories written by Gutiérrez and a series of official reports, including one from the U.S. State Department and one from the United Nations, that noted how ineffective the Mexican government has been at protecting reporters.

The Board of Immigration Appeals in May sent the case back to Hough, ordering him to reconsider in light of the new evidence. But when attorneys met prior to the hearing this morning, Beckett discovered that some key documents from the Board of Immigration Appeals were missing from Hough's files. The judge said he had not read them.

"It's disheartening, to say the least, that a case involving a journalist's life has been handled in such a cavalier and haphazard fashion," said Kathy Kiely, the Club's Press Freedom Fellow and the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at the Missouri Journalism School. "I had hoped the judge would give this evidence the serious consideration it deserves but the undignified and disrespectful way Emilio was treated today has left me more concerned than ever."

Gutiérrez, who flew in for the hearing from Michigan, where he is a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan, arrived at the court early for a scheduled 8:30 a.m. hearing. He did not take the stand until 5:20 p.m. Much of the intervening hours were spent with Beckett trying to reconstruct the court records from his file.

Lynette Clemetson, director of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship, testified about Gutiérrez's qualifications and the serious danger that she believes awaits him if he is returned to Mexico. She noted that her program has received many calls from Mexico seeking interviews with Gutiérrez and that she has deliberately screened them out of concern for his safety.

As Clemetson took the stand, Hough asked the veteran New York Times reporter and former NPR executive, who had submitted a letter of support for Gutierrez to the court in English, if she needed an interpreter. An attorney for the government asked if she was being paid for her testimony. Clemetson's testimony was in question all day, after numerous attempts by the government to have her excluded from the proceedings. Hough said he would not consider letters that she and eleven other organizations and individuals submitted in support of the asylum case.

When it came time for his turn on the stand, Gutiérrez was adamant that no place in Mexico will be safe for him because of his reporting and outspokenness against government corruption in his home country. Asked why he has angered the government, the reporter said: "I did my job."

A number of friends and supporters of Gutiérrez, including Luis Trelles of Radio Ambulante, another Knight-Wallace Fellow, watched the proceedings in the courtroom. Afterwards, Club executive director Bill McCarren expressed the group's mixed feelings.

"I thought Emilio and Lynette presented powerful testimony," McCarren said. "But it wasn't encouraging that the judge could not look either of them in the eye. I hope the judge will give this case more serious consideration between now and Christmas than he has so far."

Gutiérrez has the right to appeal any decision by Hough.

Contact: Linsday Underwood, National Press Club, lunderwood@press.org