National Press Club

National Press Club files friend-of-the-court brief in Mexican journalist's asylum case

March 19, 2018 | By Kathy Kiely | kkiely@press.org

Emilio Gutierrez speaks after receiving the National Press Club's John Aubuchon Freedom of the Press Award in October 2017.

Emilio Gutierrez speaks after receiving the National Press Club's John Aubuchon Freedom of the Press Award in October 2017.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Urging the U.S. government not to "break with this Nation's long and proud tradition of providing safe refuge to journalists, authors and commentators who criticize corrupt government officials," the National Press Club, its nonprofit Journalism Institute and 15 other professional journalism organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief March 19 before the Board of Immigration Appeals in support of Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto's asylum case.

The filing represents the latest step in a four-month effort to free Gutiérrez, winner of the Club's 2017 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award. A Mexican journalist who sought asylum in the U.S. after his reporting on official corruption made him the target of death threats in his home country, Gutiérrez has been detained indefinitely, along with his son, Oscar, by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in El Paso, Texas. ICE is refusing to release them despite pleas from journalism and human rights organizations and the Catholic bishop of El Paso Mark Seitz.

Joining the Club in signing the brief are many of the nation's leading professional journalism organizations, including a number that represent reporters working in conflict zones overseas.

"We are gratified that so many of our colleagues recognize the dangerous precedent that could be set if immigration officials have their way and deport Emilio," said Club President Andrea Edney. "Reporters like him, who expose official corruption, help make citizens safer on both sides of the border."

"Dispatching Emilio Gutierrez-Soto and his son to almost certain death upon their return to Mexico would send a clear signal to corrupt government officials around the world, and to the journalists working abroad, that Freedom of the Press is now a diminished public policy in this country," the Club argues in the brief.

The brief was authored pro bono by First Amendment attorneys Charles Tobin, Steven Zansberg and Mark Flores. Tobin is a partner in the Washington office of Ballard Spahr; Zansberg is a partner in the firm's Denver office. Flores is an associate in the Dallas office of the Littler Mendelson law firm. Both Zansberg and Flores are former TV news broadcasters.

To rebut El Paso immigration judge Robert Hough, who last summer denied the Gutiérrezes asylum by questioning Emilio Gutiérrez's credentials as a journalist, the lawyers call the Board of Immigration Appeals' attention to hundreds of bylined articles unearthed by New Mexico State University research librarian Molly Malloy, as well as to the professional accolades that Gutierrez won from colleagues.

The brief describes Hough's contention that Gutiérrez could avoid reprisals by moving to another part of Mexico or seeking government protection as "naive," citing a letter to the Board of Immigration Appeals from the U.S. State Department.

It describes Mexico as "the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist outside of war zones." It also says that Mexican government officials are often complicit in the persecution of journalists.

"In other instances, journalists are threatened by public and law enforcement officials, including the military, merely for reporting on issues they deem critical," says the letter from Scott Busby of the State Department's bureau of democracy, human rights and labor.

Gutierrez entered the United States through a legal port of entry in 2008, accompanied by his then-15-year-old son, and requested asylum. He fled his home after several frightening run-ins with local officials angered by his reporting. The final straw was a warning from a confidential source that he had been placed on a hit list. After U.S. immigration officials determined he had "credible fear" of returning to his home country, he was allowed to live and work in Las Cruces, New Mexico, while waiting for his case to be adjudicated. In October, he spoke to a black-tie crowd at the Club's Fourth Estate Award dinner as he accepted the prestigious John Aubuchon Freedom of the Press Award on behalf of Mexico's press corps.

Two months later, and without any advance warning, ICE officials attempted to deport Gutierrez and his son. They were stopped when the Board of Immigration Appeals issued an emergency stay. The board later agreed to rehear the asylum case. But the process could take months and ICE officials are refusing to release the father and son — a decision that Bishop Seitz has called "morally wrong." the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle and the Denver Post all have editorialized on behalf of the Gutiérrezes.

Earlier this month, the Rutgers University Law School's human-rights clinic filed a writ of habeas corpus for the Gutiérrezes' release. The federal court in El Paso has given the government until April 6 to respond.

"That means that, at best, Emilio will have spent four months in jail for having done nothing wrong," said Barbara Cochran, president of the National Press Club's Journalism Institute. "It's hard not to conclude that he's now being persecuted by a second country for his work as a journalist — our own."