Emilio Gutierrez, right, seen here with Associated Press journalist Michele Salcedo. (Photo by Noel St. John/the National Press Club)

EXCLUDING COUNTRIES at war, few places are as dangerous for journalists as Mexico, where 73 members of the profession have been killed since 2010, including at least 11 this year. Drug cartels and organized crime, as well as corrupt government security forces, have played a role in the carnage, which has forced some journalists into hiding and others to flee the country. Impunity is the rule; few of the murders are solved.

Among those who fear for their lives is Emilio Gutierrez, who, with his then-teenage son, crossed into the United States in 2008 after writing critical stories about abuses committed against civilians by the Mexican army in prosecuting its war on drugs in Chihuahua, then Mexico's most violent state. Mr. Gutierrez's hurried departure was prompted by the news, conveyed to him by a friend with contacts in the security forces, that a military officer had ordered him killed.

Mr. Gutierrez's account is credible. By leaving Mexico, he sacrificed his home, livelihood, friends and family, and eked out a meager living in the United States operating a food truck in El Paso. Nonetheless, after years of pleadings and postponements, this past summer a federal immigration judge denied his asylum claim; an appeal was rejected in November. Last week, he seemed on the verge of deportation when an 11th-hour stay was issued by the Board of Immigration Appeals.

As he awaits his fate in a remote Texas jail, Mr. Gutierrez, 54, remains convinced of the peril he faces if deported to his native country. "My life depends on this [appeal]," he said by telephone in a news conference organized Monday by the National Press Club. "I'm terrified to set foot in Mexico."

The judge who denied asylum in the case, Robert S. Hough, pointed to an absence of documentary and testimonial corroboration of Mr. Gutierrez's claim. The woman who relayed word of the alleged death threat did not come forward; neither did Mr. Gutierrez's former boss at the newspaper for which he worked in Chihuahua. Much of Mr. Gutierrez's case comes down to his word.

Nonetheless, the judge's cut-and-dried application of the law fails to take into account conditions in Mexico generally and the peril faced there by journalists in particular. It's not surprising that Mr. Gutierrez cannot recover copies of his articles, written more than a decade ago for a regional newspaper. Nor is it unusual that witnesses are reluctant to come forward, given the fear with which many Mexicans regard the security forces.

As a U.N. report published this month concluded, citing the deaths, disappearances and attacks on dozens of journalists tallied by Mexico's Human Rights Commission, "The data . . . presents a picture for the situation of journalists in Mexico that cannot be described as other than catastrophic." Against that background, it seems cavalier to dismiss the threat Mr. Gutierrez faces should he be deported to Mexico. He should be granted asylum.