A Mexican journalist who sought asylum in the United States in 2008 was arrested by U.S. immigration agents this week and told he would be deported, though an appeals board temporarily halted his removal Friday — sparing his life for now, he said.
Emilio Gutierrez, 54, who in October received a press freedom award from the National Press Club in Washington, said he and his 24-year-old son, Oscar, were taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Thursday while trying to enter an appeal to their asylum claim.
"We can't go back to Mexico. They'll kill us," Gutierrez said, using his attorney's cellphone to speak from an ICE detention center in Sierra Blanca, Texas.
Gutierrez said he and his son fled northern Mexico's Chihuahua state in 2008 after he published stories exposing the abuses committed by soldiers who robbed and extorted residents in his hometown, Ascención, a notorious drug trafficking hub.
After soldiers ransacked his home, Gutierrez said he learned his name appeared on a military "kill list," so he fled across the border into Texas with his then-teeange son.
In July, after living nine years in the United States, Gutierrez's asylum request was denied, and an appeal was rejected in early November. His attorney, Eduardo Beckett, said Gutierrez and his son were handcuffed and jailed Thursday when they presented themselves at an ICE processing center to enter an emergency appeal.
"I'll go anywhere in the world," Gutierrez said. "Any place is safer for me than Mexico."
In a statement Friday, ICE officials said Gutierrez remains in custody pending a decision on his appeal. "Immigration judges in these courts make decisions based on the merits of each individual case," the statement said.
With drug-related violence at record levels, Mexico has become one of the world's most dangerous countries for the press, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. More than 40 Mexican reporters have been murdered since 1992 for performing their jobs, including at least five this year. Only Iraq and Syria were more dangerous for the press in 2017, according to CPJ.
Journalists working in small towns plagued by drug cartel violence are especially vulnerable, but the dead have included staffers at some of Mexico's leading publications.
Bill McCarren, the executive director of the National Press Club, said the organization gave Gutierrez this year's press freedom award to draw attention to the plight of Mexico's imperiled journalists. McCarren was alarmed to find out ICE agents were trying to send Gutierrez back to a place where his life would be in danger.
"This is a critical, existential issue for Emilio, but also a critical issue for all journalists in Mexico," McCarren said in an interview. "It's a concern for us that the United States, that stands for free press as a bedrock principle of our democracy, would not make a place for him here when he's so clearly at risk."
Earlier this year, U.S. authorities denied asylum to another Mexican reporter, Martín Méndez Pineda, who fled death threats after writing about similar military abuses. After months in U.S. immigration detention, his asylum request was denied and he consented to deportation.
The Mexico representative of the Committee to Project Journalists, Jan-Albert Hootsen, said the Mexican government has responded to public pressure over the killings by setting up new safeguards, including temporary housing in Mexico City for journalists under threat.
But Hootsen said his organization cautions reporters against seeking asylum in the United States because the requests are likely to be denied. "The United States is obviously the place that first comes to mind for Mexican reporters who need to flee the country," said Hootsen, "so it's important for U.S. authorities to take their claims seriously and give them a fair hearing."