Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a 55-year-old Mexican journalist recently released from ICE detention, will be joining the University of Michigan community as a Knight-Wallace press freedom fellow for the 2018-2019 school year. Through the Knight-Wallace Fellowship program, which sponsors up to 20 mid-career journalists annually, Gutiérrez Soto will spend eight months in Ann Arbor studying security issues facing the press.
Gutiérrez Soto fled his home country in 2008 after discovering his name was on a hit list due to his reporting on corruption in the Mexican military. He and his now 25-year-old son, Oscar, crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near Columbus, New Mexico and requested political asylum.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 45 reporters have been killed in Mexico since 1992 and 37 of those murders went unpunished. In an email interview with The Daily, B.A. Snyder of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists said Gutiérrez Soto had legitimate cause to seek asylum in the United States.
“Mr. Gutiérrez-Soto and his son had a credible fear of persecution,” Snyder wrote. “There was abundant evidence that Mexican journalists who have reported on government corruption face persecution (including death), and that such crimes are committed with impunity. To deny Petitioners asylum would have been an egregious break with this Nation’s long-standing commitment to provide refuge to journalists from foreign lands who are the targets of reprisal.”
For the first seven months of asylum proceedings, Gutiérrez Soto and his son lived in a detention facility, but were eventually released with work permits. They moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where they spent nine years working in food business.
Represented by attorney Eduardo Beckett, Gutiérrez Soto continued to work towards political asylum, meeting regularly with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials throughout the process.
In July 2017, Gutiérrez Soto’s asylum request was denied.
Beckett filed to reopen the asylum case. Meanwhile, various organizations dedicated to free press, including the National Society of Hispanic Journalists, the National Press Club and Reporters Without Borders, began to advocate for Gutiérrez Soto.
According to Kathy Kiely, National Press Club freedom fellow and the Lee Hills chair in free-press studies at University of Missouri, the judge who denied the claim questioned whether Gutiérrez Soto was actually a journalist, so the NPC helped gather evidence of Gutiérrez Soto’s past work. Kiely’s organization also helped recruit other journalists to the cause.
Kiely said she believes part of the reason journalists demonstrated so much commitment to Gutiérrez Soto was their surprise at the U.S. government’s response.
“We’ve always supported reporters, but usually we’re supporting people who are being detained by undemocratic nations or governments overseas,” Kiely said. “This is the country that’s supposed to be the refuge for truth-tellers and this is a country that has enshrined free speech in its constitution. For this to happen here I think is what was so shocking and disturbing and I think it’s what brought people together.”
She said she was disappointed the Trump administration didn’t back the journalist’s work on Gutiérrez Soto’s case.
“We’re going to not only help this guy, but we’re going to give him allies,” Kiely said. “It dismays me that the United States government won’t do the same thing. Here’s a president who says he wants to secure the border, and it would seem to me that the most logical thing you would do is to help the journalists who are trying to extirpate the corruption that sends people across the border.”
On Dec. 7, 2017, Gutiérrez Soto and his son reported to an ICE center in El Paso, Texas for a routine appointment. ICE agents immediately served with deportation papers, handcuffed them and began to walk them towards the border.
Beckett contacted the Board of Immigration and managed to get Gutiérrez Soto and his son emergency stay before they were officially deported. Instead of being released, the Gutiérrez Soto men were taken into custody and detained, a move Kiely said was not accidental on ICE’s behalf.
“It very quickly became clear that it was not a mistake, this targeting of him, because when they brought him back, they wouldn’t let him or Oscar go,” Kiely said.
Kiely added ICE almost transferred the Gutiérrez Soto family to a remote detention facility in Sierra Blanca. Believing ICE was attempting to mentally wear the two men down by keeping them isolated, NPC intervened.
“There was an attempt to psychologically break these people so that they would give up and give up their asylum claim,” Kiely said. “We very quickly organized a press conference, and I believe that’s what got Emilio back to El Paso, because shortly after that he was moved back to El Paso, but they wouldn’t let him go.”
Gutiérrez Soto and his son were held in El Paso for over eight months. During Gutiérrez Soto’s detention, Beckett and other allies — including press organizations, the archbishop of El Paso and members of Congress — pushed for Gutiérrez Soto’s asylum case to be reopened. A group of 20 journalism organizations filed two amicus briefs, one in March and one in April, expressing support for Gutiérrez Soto’s motion to bring his case back to court.
Lynette Clemetson, director of the U-M Wallace House, the community center for the Knight-Wallace program, signed both briefs. After doing so, Clemetson said she wanted to do more for Gutiérrez Soto, and began exploring the possibility of inviting him on as a Knight-Wallace fellow. She noted the program has a history of supporting journalists from harrowing backgrounds, like Thomas Kamilindi, a reporter who survived the Rwandan genocide.
“After I got involved in this more legal aspect of the case, it just occurred to me that our program — our mission — is to support journalists, in a very tangible way, but also to support the role of journalism in a free society,” Clemetson said. “This case exemplified what we mean when we say we have to stand up for the rights of journalism.”
Before offering Gutiérrez Soto the fellowship, Clemetson met with U-M administrators to make sure she was within her bounds inviting on a fellow with pending asylum status.
“Luckily, the University believes in academic freedom, so once there were no particular legal hurdles, then it just became a matter of me meeting him, interviewing him, in the same way I would interview other applicants for the fellowship, the one key difference being that I had to interview him while he was in a detention center,” Clemetson said.
According to Clemetson, the Knight-Wallace program normally invites mid-career, working journalists but she decided to make an exception for Gutiérrez Soto due to his circumstances. After interviewing him, Clemetson felt Gutiérrez Soto, who began writing at age 19, was a strong candidate for the fellowship because he was clearly eager to return to journalism and connect with others in his profession.
“He had such a great desire to be back within a community of journalists, and to be thinking about journalism again, and to consider that there might be a time in his life when he could get back to the profession that he devoted himself to for decades,” Clemetson said. “Even though his circumstances were certainly different from the majority of our applicants, in the ways that count, he’s someone I felt would really benefit greatly from what the University has to offer, what the fellowship has to offer.”
Although Clemetson wanted Gutiérrez Soto to come to the University as a fellow, she couldn’t make any definite plans while he was still in federal custody.
Eventually, the Board of Immigration responded to pressure from Gutiérrez Soto’s allies. On July 10, 2018, Judge David Guaderrama issued an order saying immigration officials discriminated against Gutiérrez Soto and violated his right to free speech in detaining him.
Guaderrama cited emails showing ICE officials were already targeting Gutiérrez Soto for deportation in February 2017, five months before he was denied asylum. The order also noted Gutiérrez Soto was detained soon after he spoke out against asylum proceedings at an NPC Freedom Award reception in October 2017.
“Lady Impunity has not let go of our hand, while Lady Justice prostitutes herself in the company of the government to again kill the freedom of expression,” Gutiérrez Soto said at the reception, according to a translated transcript. “Those who seek political asylum in countries like this, like the United States, we encounter the decisions of immigration authorities that barter away the international laws.”
Gutiérrez Soto and his son were officially released from custody July 26. Their release came the night before the Department of Homeland Security was scheduled to unveil records of all ICE communications related to Gutiérrez Soto’s case. Kiely, who filed the Freedom of Information Act request for the records, believes ICE released Gutiérrez Soto and his son partly to avoid having to publicize its communications.
“I don’t know what’s in those records, but it was enough to get the government to release him,” Kiely said.
The Gutiérrez Soto asylum case is still pending, but unless future legal developments hold them back, Gutiérrez Soto and his son will move to Ann Arbor for the 2018-2019 school year.
Clemetson said it should be made clear Gutiérrez Soto is coming to the University as a student, not a teacher. According to Clemetson, many people commented on online articles about Gutiérrez Soto, saying they were upset the University would give a salary to someone with pending asylum status. Clemetson clarified the Knight-Wallace program is funded by an endowment, independent from the University, and Gutiérrez Soto will be a student, not a professor.
Gutiérrez Soto will take courses on press freedom, refugee and asylum law, in addition to other topics that interest him. Clemetson hopes the Knight-Wallace fellowship will be an enriching experience for Gutiérrez Soto, adding Knight-Wallace fellows have a unique opportunity to benefit from the University’s many resources.
Clemetson noted many local residents and organizations have already contacted Knight-Wallace staff, hoping to help the Gutiérrez Soto family connect with the Ann Arbor community.
“We’ve had so many people reach out to us just since it was announced that he was released last week, various community partners that have contacted me to say that they would help in any way to get them settled, to get them integrated into the community, to help them with any sort of services they need and to make sure that they feel that Ann Arbor is a welcoming place to live,” Clemetson said. “I’ve been really moved by that.”
Though Clemetson is excited for Gutiérrez Soto to join the Knight-Wallace program as a fellow, she fears Gutiérrez Soto could still be deported or detained due to the country’s fickle political environment.
“In some ways, I will believe that Emilio is here when he gets here,” Clemetson said. “These cases related to immigration policy can have lots of twists and turns.”
Snyder echoed Clemetson’s sentiments.
“While NAHJ is thankful for his release, we hope that a favorable decision in his asylum case will be forthcoming,” Snyder wrote. “The case of Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto is a testimony to the importance of solidarity in difficult times.”
According to Kiely, the handling of Gutiérrez Soto’s asylum request is reflective of a worldwide threat to journalism.
“There’s a global effort to suppress free speech,” Kiely said. “I think there are a lot of macro reasons that this is happening that have to do with people’s anxieties around big economic changes, and when you have those anxious moments, that’s when strong men tend to rise, and I think that’s one reason journalists are very vulnerable right now. It’s really important for people to support truth-tellers.”