Knight-Wallace Fellow Emilio Gutiérrez Soto is currently awaiting his ruling in a political asylum case officially opened in 2008, when he fled Mexico with his son, Oscar, upon discovering his name on a military hit list after writing an article about soldiers robbing a hotel. He was detained for nearly eight months in 2017 and released one day before a deadline for the federal judge to produce documents explaining the reason for his detainment. The University of Michigan’s Knight-Wallace Fellowship advocated for Gutiérrez’s release and accepted him as a fellow for the 2018-19 school year.
Gutiérrez spoke to students and faculty about his past and this struggle to receive U.S. asylum, as well as his experience with journalism and the free press, Thursday in an event sponsored by the English Language and Literature Department.
Gutiérrez was first detained December 2017, though he sought asylum months earlier. He was received an emergency stay before deportation, but was detained and released a second time this summer. Since then, Gutiérrez and his son have been living in Ann Arbor following the beginning of his fellowship in September, traveling back to El Paso, Texas, several times for immigration hearings.
Gutiérrez, through a professional Spanish translator, described the traumatic experience of leaving Mexico. He emphasized how military intimidation and concern for his own life and the life of his adolescent son was what ultimately pushed him to leave.
“It seemed incredible to me that we were leaving behind forever our modest legacy, our home. To preserve our lives was more important. In the darkness of that night, our lives changed. The following day, we had determined already to ask for political asylum in the United States, that was our opportunity for life,” Gutiérrez said. “We had security, but not freedom. The first night that we were under protection, they put us in a room that was so cold that we could see our breath and our fingers were numb. We had to ask one of the guards that he let us look for some towels so we could protect ourselves from the wind coming from the air-conditioning. I covered my son with two towels and hugged him to keep him warm.”
He described the frustration with the ongoing case, from the lack of consideration of witnesses to missing case documents.
“Our case has been very tiring, we have been in this process for 10 years already,” Gutiérrez said. “The judge has taken our case, instead of doing it as a matter of legal process, he’s taken it as a personal matter.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 47 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 1992. Gutiérrez assured this number is much higher when responding to a student inquiry regarding the costs versus benefits of risking his life for the sake of freedom of expression.
“The risk that you take is for the love of the work and love of the freedom, and because you like to participate in a democratic society,” Gutiérrez said. “My recommendation is that before you report, to investigate, and if it’s not prudent for your life, perhaps don’t work. I say that because in Mexico there are statistics of 128 journalists assassinated in 11 years, 30 that have disappeared. And Mexico, even though it is not a place with war, there are 320,000 dead in 11 years. So you have an idea of the risk that you take in the name of freedom of expression.”
Gutiérrez also considered the political environment, from Donald Trump’s administration’s hardline immigration policy and Central American migrant caravans that have pushed to enter the U.S in the past year. He correlated current immigration tension in the U.S. to historical U.S. policy in Central America.
“The people that are at the border now from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua,” Gutiérrez said. “Their countries are in crisis from corruption and poverty and violence that comes from political involvement from the U.S. Nobody wants to leave their home to come for an adventure. I left my good job behind, I had two houses as a legacy for my child. And besides my job, I had the opportunity to run a ranch. I felt happy with my work.”
Prof. Andrea Zemgulys, director of undergraduate studies, highlighted the pertinence of such discussions for students to explore future careers and understand the importance of professional writing.
“We’re definitely trying to think about our majors, and any student who’s on campus and thinking about a career in writing, and just kind of helping think about the future, this is a step in that direction,” Zemgulys said. “We, in general, are trying to think more about life after college for our students, and so professional writing and journalism is one of those things.”
LSA sophomore Ellie Katz attended the event because of its national relevance and to hear a firsthand account of immigration, especially as it relates to freedom of expression in other nations.
“I came to learn more about his experience,” Katz said. “We’ve been talking so much about the immigrant experience in our (Spanish) class and what it means politically to be a migrant, but also, in more of a humanitarian sense, to be a person without a home. I think that today I learned about his experience in particular but also his reiteration of how it feels to be a person without a state or a home, just kind of existing in the in between. That was most impactful for me.”