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Mexican Journalist Faces Deportation After Fleeing to U.S. Amid Death Threats

4 Jan

By Alicia A. Caldwell, The Wall Street Journal

A Mexican journalist who sought refuge in the United States amid death threats almost a decade ago now faces deportation in a case drawing criticism from immigration and journalism advocates.

The case is a high-profile example of the years it can take for asylum claims to wind through the country’s backlogged immigration court system, compounded by appeals and the challenge of claiming refuge from countries that are U.S. allies.

Emilio Gutierrez Soto, 54, says he and his 24-year-old son Oscar Gutierrez Soto will be killed if they return to Mexico.

The pair were recently denied asylum and arrested after an initial appeal was rejected on technical grounds.

The Justice Department temporarily blocked their deportation while an appeal is being decided.

Mr. Gutierrez said in a recent interview from a West Texas immigration jail that he plans to fight until all appeals are exhausted.

“We’ll fight until the last step,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “We have plenty of witnesses and testimony. Fortunately, I’m not alone.”

Mr. Gutierrez is supported by immigration advocates and journalism organizations, including the National Press Club and Reporters Without Borders. More than 23,000 people have signed a petition calling for immigration officials to release Mr. Gutierrez and his son.

Kathy Kiely, a press freedom fellow for the National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, said the U.S. government appears to be ignoring  ongoing threats to journalists in Mexico.

“To me it’s a very backwards, upside down situation,” Ms. Kiely said.

At least 11 journalists have been killed in Mexico this year, according to Reporters Without Borders, an international freedom of information organization that also tracks threats to journalists.

Eduardo Beckett, an El Paso immigration lawyer who recently took Mr. Gutierrez’s case, said he believed the judge was dismissive of Mr. Gutierrez’s claims because he has been outside of Mexico for so long and hasn’t been working as a journalist in the United States. Mr. Gutierrez has been running a food truck in Las Cruces, N.M.

Nonetheless, Mr. Beckett and Mr. Gutierrez has continued to be an outspoken critic of the Mexican government and the military.

The father and son fled to the United States in July 2008 after a group of men who identified themselves as military troops ransacked their home.

The elder Mr. Gutierrez said in his asylum application that he has been writing about abuses of civilians by the Mexican military since 2005 and the raid on his house and reports of death threats prompted him to flee.

Mr. Gutierrez fled Mexico in the midst of a bloody fight between powerful drug cartels and the Mexican government. In some towns and cities, military units took on the role of police officers, prompting complaints of abuses and rights violations.

He was among the first journalists to flee Mexico and seek asylum in the United States, a long shot for any Mexican citizen.

During the 1008 fiscal year, when Mr. Gutierrez and his son asked for asylum, more than 3,000 such requests were made. Immigration judges that year granted just 71 cases and denied 250, according to statistics published by the Justice Department.

Because of the backlog of more than 650,000 cases in the immigration court system, asylum cases can take years to be decided.

In 2016, the most recently available Justice Department statistics, nearly 13,000 Mexicans asked the U.S. government for refuge. Judges approved 464 requests while denying more than 2,600 others. To win asylum, applicants must prove they have or are likely to suffer persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

Foreigners seeking asylum in the United States must also prove that the government of their home country is either unwilling or unable to protect them.

Proving that can be difficult for citizens of countries that are U.S. allies, such as Mexico. And the existence of general violence or crime in a country doesn’t necessarily mean someone will qualify for asylum in the U.S.