On Monday, University of Michigan Knight-Wallace Journalism fellow Emilio Gutiérrez Soto and his son Oscar had an immigration hearing in El Paso, Texas as part of their effort to be granted asylum. Gutiérrez and his son have been seeking asylum in the U.S. for 10 years ever since the journalist received threats from the Mexican military.
Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as Gutiérrez’s lead attorney Eduardo Beckett, presented Gutiérrez and his son’s case. Gutiérrez initially began seeking asylum in 2008, fleeing the country upon discovering that his name was on a military hit list after writing an article about soldiers robbing a hotel.
After being detained at an immigration center in El Paso for nearly eight months in 2017, Gutiérrez was released a day before the federal judge’s deadline to produce documents explaining why he was detained. During this time, the Knight-Wallace Fellowship, a University program managed by Wallace House that allows mid-career journalists to spend an academic year at the University, advocated for his release and accepted him as a fellow for the 2018-2019 school year. Gutiérrez and his son have been living in Ann Arbor since the beginning of his fellowship in September.
Judge Robert Hough, the current presiding judge on the case, denied Gutiérrez’s asylum request in July 2017, but later reinstated the appeal. Wallace House Director Lynette Clemetson said the family should know the results of the case by January. Hough also denied earlier requests to change the hearing venue to Michigan, a mandate that Beckett has taken to indicate an unjust bias against Gutiérrez.
Beckett cited the lack of consideration of new material evidence as his first indication of injustice. He described the allegedly ignored evidence filed in the appeals court, such as updated expert data on conditions in Mexico that show 47 reporters have been killed in the country since 1992, and letters of support from various prominent news outlets and organizations.
“I strongly believe that Judge Hough has prejudged the case. He’s done everything in his power to minimize it. Judges are kind of like the gatekeepers of cases, they admit and exclude evidence, they decide whose credible and who is not,” Beckett said. “Back in May, we won Emilio’s appeal to have the judge review new material evidence that was not available before that was very important to the case. All the evidence that was submitted should’ve been with Judge Hough on Oct 22, and he barely has it. That seems very reckless, that’s never happened to me.”
Kathy Kiely, Lee Hills Chair in free press studies at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and National Press Club freedom fellow, spearheaded NPC’s effort to gather evidence of Gutiérrez’s past journalistic work. She tweeted a document detailing letters of support from the NPC, Radio-Television Digital News Association and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
Beckett claimed that despite a strong testimony from Clemetson in support Gutiérrez’s asylum request, her efforts were not taken into account. Clemetson joined the two for a hearing in August and on Monday.
“When Lynette joined us in August, she came in good faith to introduce herself, to meet the judge, to tell him about her program, and the judge wouldn’t even acknowledge her in the courtroom and told me it was irrelevant. And to me, that was a sign of disrespect, at that moment I told the judge that it was in the interest of justice and Emilio’s fellowship, which is not just some small accomplishment, that this case should no longer be before him, and that it should be moved to Michigan,” Beckett said. “He later said, ‘I don’t care if you turn blue, I’m not letting go of this case.’”
Clemetson echoed many of Beckett’s sentiments.
“I was able to testify. Emilio was able to testify. It was clear that the judge did not consider our testimony at all,” she said. “After everything that happened, it was our assumption that we were testifying not just to the judge but to the appeals court, because the judge had indicated that our testimonies were not going to change the way he saw the case.”
Clemetson said while they are appreciative the two can return to Ann Arbor for the time being, the team still has a long way to go before Gutiérrez and his son will have secure status.
“The sad thing is that the judge has always had the power to grant asylum to Emilio and Oscar, and while this further delay means that he can come back to Michigan, a much better outcome would’ve been that the judge look at all of the evidence and grant asylum for this journalist whose life is in danger,” she said. “That was the desired outcome yesterday, and we certainly hope that the ruling in January reflects that he has gone through all of the evidence presented, which at this point addresses every concern that he expressed in his first ruling. There should be ample evidence to allow him to reach a different conclusion this time, but if he doesn’t and if he denies asylum a second time, I am certain that Emilio’s lawyers are going to pursue the appeal.”