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Opinion U.S. immigration authorities are failing this award-winning Mexican journalist

Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, right, is shown during a news conference in El Paso in 2009. (Victor Calzada/The El Paso Times via AP)

In 2008, when Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto made the difficult decision to flee his homeland and seek refuge in the United States, he had little idea that he was embarking on an ordeal that would last more than a decade.

Gutiérrez says he never intended to come to the United States, but when soldiers broke into his home, taking his domestic identity documents, he knew he was stuck. There was nowhere for him to go in Mexico.

At the time, Gutiérrez faced a brutal dilemma: He could either continue reporting on drug cartels and corrupt Mexican military officials and live under the shadow of mounting death threats, or he could do what so many of his countrymen before him had done in seeking out a safer future for his family across the border.

He chose the latter, and ever since then he and his son Oscar have been mired in a labyrinthine asylum case. Recently I had a chance to meet Gutiérrez and learned a great deal more about his plight.

“We would have nothing if we stayed: no home, no work, no family.” he says of fleeing Mexico. “It was my last chance. It was the only option I had.”

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Incredibly, in July 2017 they were denied asylum in the United States and nearly deported. If not for the intervention of press freedom advocates, the Gutiérrezes would probably have been quietly sent back Mexico to confront a gruesome fate.

Instead they were detained in December 2017 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and imprisoned in a detention center in Texas.

Oscar was only 15 when he and his father began their odyssey. His son suffered through all of this, Emilio Gutiérrez says, “because he had the bad luck to have a father who is a journalist.”

I met Gutiérrez for the first time in 2017 at the National Press Club, where he was accepting the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award on behalf of fellow journalists facing immeasurable dangers covering the front lines of the drug war in Mexico.

“In Mexico we all have a wound that we need to heal," he says. “Everyone has a relative, friend or someone we know who has been assassinated and whose death will never be investigated. For me, it’s the deaths of my colleagues that hurt me profoundly. I think about their families. I think about what would have happened to my son if I weren’t here. They’re killing the messengers in Mexico.”

The award is usually given to journalists who are in imminent danger because of their work. In recent years, it has been used to draw attention to continuing cases in need of broader public awareness.

I gratefully received the distinction in 2015 while I was imprisoned in Iran. So did Austin Tice, an American journalist who has been missing in Syria since 2012. Last year Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, Reuters reporters detained in Myanmar after uncovering a massacre of Rohingyas and the mass grave where they were buried, also earned the distinction.

Gutiérrez received it in December 2017. Like so many of those before him, he was unable to accept the award in person because he was in prison. The major difference among all these cases is that Gutiérrez is the only one being persecuted by the American government.

But the tug of war over Gutiérrez’s fate between immigration authorities and press freedom advocates persists. Last May, on World Press Freedom Day, the University of Michigan’s Knight-Wallace Fellowships for Journalists extended an invitation to the still-detained Gutiérrez for the 2018-2019 academic year.

In July, Gutiérrez and his son were released and allowed to relocate to Ann Arbor, Mich. By all accounts, the two have become highly active members of the university community who bring a unique perspective to life there.

And yet the judge in their case has once again decided to deny their most recent appeal for asylum.

“The respondent failed to show that it is more likely than not that he would be subjected to torture upon his return to Mexico,” Judge Robert Hough wrote in his decision. “The record lacks evidence that the respondent wrote any articles that denounce the corruption in Mexico.”

In fact, Gutiérrez has written numerous articles on precisely that topic — and was threatened for precisely that reason. Dozens of his pieces were translated into English and made available to the court through the University of Michigan’s Language Resource Center. It’s a reminder to Gutiérrez that, despite his legal battle, there is much to be grateful for, especially the outpouring of support from people around the United States.

“I consider the great majority of Americans to be excellent citizens, and they’ve shown us great solidarity,” Gutiérrez told me. He plans to continue his appeal and hopes the various rulings on his case will one day be corrected. For him, the U.S. justice system hasn’t lived up to its promise. "I only hope that it gives me what I’m looking for: Justice.”