Originally published by The New Yorker
For years, Emilio Gutiérrez Soto worked as a reporter and Jack-of-all-trades for El Diario del Noroeste in Ascensión, a town of about fifteen thousand people in Mexico’s northern Chihuahua state. “It was just regular everyday news—the crime beat, sports, entertainment, social events,” he told me recently. In addition to reporting and writing, Gutiérrez Soto sold ads and kept the office accounts.
In 2005, while covering crime, he interviewed victims of assaults and robberies at a hotel called La Estrella, in Puerto Palomas, another town in Chihuahua. “The people I interviewed told me that the criminals were dressed in military attire,” he recalled. He wrote up the story, and its publication “made the military very angry.” A lieutenant colonel in the military summoned him by telephone to a meeting in Ascensión. There, according to court papers that Gutiérrez Soto filed, a group of about twenty soldiers, led by General Alfonso García Vega, demanded that Gutiérrez Soto stop reporting about the military and apologize. They also told him that he was being placed under “close surveillance.”
The reporter consulted his newspaper colleagues about what to do. “My editor told me that I was free to do whatever I chose,” he recalled. “I decided to go public.” The next day, he wrote a story under the headline “Members of the Military Threaten Reporter’s Life.” He withheld his byline. It “was a decision by the newsroom,” he told me. “We knew some of what we were reporting was sensitive, so we decided to sign a lot of the stories ‘by the staff.’ ” He wasn’t sure that the strategy would protect him, he said, because “I had my own writing style, so I was pretty easy to identify.” But he agreed to remove his name—a decision that would later have consequences in American immigration court.
There had always been an army presence around Ascensión, but after 2006, when Felipe Calderón, then the President of Mexico, launched a militarized war on drugs, backed by the Bush Administration, soldiers became more active. Journalists came under threat from gunmen working for drug cartels and also from security forces that objected to coverage of excessive force or crimes carried out by soldiers. In 2007, there were two cases of murder of Mexican journalists in which the Committee to Protect Journalists was able to determine that the motive was to silence the press. Several newspaper-delivery workers were also killed, apparently by drug cartels.
Gutiérrez Soto kept reporting. Seeking protection, he filed complaints about the threats he received with the local police and with Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission. This made him even more visible. He lived in Ascensión with his son, Óscar, who was then fourteen years old. In the early hours of May 6, 2008, they were awakened by a loud bang. “I thought an electricity transformer had exploded,” Gutiérrez Soto told me, but when he looked outside he could see cars with their lights on and “people with weapons.” They were soldiers. They broke down his door and entered. “I started shouting ‘Press! Press! Newspaper!’ ” The soldiers ordered him and his son to lie on the floor. They searched his house, looking for drugs, but “there was nothing to find.” Still, “It was a night of terror,” he said. The next day, he helped write a story for El Diario del Noroeste about the raid on his home. He also notified the National Human Rights Commission again.
Six weeks later, Gutiérrez Soto and his son fled to the United States and applied for asylum at a border-crossing station in New Mexico. They were separated and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but, by the following January, both had been paroled, while their case was considered. As is not uncommon in the broken labyrinth that is the American immigration-justice system, the asylum case dragged on for years. They moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where Gutiérrez Soto operated a food truck. He lived there for nearly a decade, was never arrested, and regularly appeared at ice offices for mandatory check-ins.
For his asylum hearings, Gutiérrez Soto and his lawyers struggled to document his story. “It’s hard getting stuff from Mexico,” his current lawyer, Eduardo Beckett, told me. It’s not as if a paper like El Diario del Noroeste has digitized archives going back fifteen years. And when they could collect old stories, a lot of the articles important to Gutiérrez Soto’s case had no byline. He did obtain a copy of a National Human Rights Commission report documenting the complaint that he filed after the raid on his home. The report noted that “the impunity that prevails in cases in which reporters have been victims of diverse violations of their fundamental rights obstructs their work” and undermines a profession that is “visibly cowed from exercising their freedom of expression.” Since then, if anything, the situation has gotten worse. In 2017, according to Reporters Without Borders, eleven Mexican journalists were murdered.
By the time Gutiérrez Soto’s asylum case had reached its final hearing, in December, 2016, it had become a highly visible cause for American defenders of journalism. The National Press Club, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and many other media and human-rights organizations spoke out or filed papers on his behalf. In the polarized age of Donald Trump’s populist assaults on the press, however, there is always the possibility that such support only causes skeptics of the media to take a harder line.
Gutiérrez Soto’s case is not the only one in which the Trump Administration has decided to pursue the deportation of a professional journalist. In April, in Memphis, at a protest about police coöperation with ice officers, the police arrested Manuel Durán, a Salvadoran-born journalist, who was covering the demonstration. Durán is a longtime Spanish-language radio anchor in Memphis, who owns Memphis Noticias, a local news outlet aimed at Latinos. According to ice, he has been subject to a deportation order issued more than a decade ago, after he missed an appearance before immigration officers. The criminal charges—the police said that Durán failed to obey orders to get out of the street—were dropped, but ice picked him up and placed him in deportation proceedings.
Last July, after several hearings about Gutiérrez Soto’s asylum claim, Robert S. Hough, a federal immigration judge in El Paso, Texas, ruled against him. Hough found that his testimony was marred by “inconsistencies, implausibilities, and uncorroborated assertions.” Among other things, Hough wrote that the reporter “could reasonably avoid the harm he fears by re-locating to another part of Mexico.” It was a stinging decision that narrowed the path for Gutiérrez Soto to prevail on appeal. “The judge went out of his way” to discredit the reporter, Beckett, the attorney, told me. “In my opinion, the judge misunderstood the case. The judge didn’t understand the inner workings of the press. I’m talking about Mexico specifically, the way that reporters [exercise] self-censorship. When you write critical stories about the government, you don’t put your name on it.”
Last December, while the appeal was still pending, Gutiérrez Soto and his son reported for their regular check-in with ice in El Paso. They were arrested, put into a van, and driven to the Mexican border for immediate deportation. Only a desperate emergency appeal by Beckett blocked their expulsion. But father and son were nonetheless detained in an ice facility, the El Paso Processing Center. To interview Gutiérrez Soto, I had to arrange for him to telephone me from the center.
In the months that Gutiérrez Soto has been detained, his home in Las Cruces has been broken into and robbed, he told me, and his food truck was stolen from its parking place on his former street. Beckett has appealed the asylum claim once more, “but it’s a tough case,” he told me. “I’m not going to say it’s not.” American journalists continue to rally to the cause, but it isn’t clear whether they can succeed. On Thursday, World Press Freedom Day, Lynette Clemetson, the director of the Knight-Wallace journalism-fellowship program at the University of Michigan, plans to announce that her university has invited Gutiérrez Soto to take up residence as a Senior Press Freedom Fellow, contingent on his lawful release from detention. Clemetson told me that she became familiar with the case while signing onto amicus briefs with other journalists; she decided to travel to El Paso to meet with Gutiérrez Soto and to offer him the fellowship. “We’re not out to provoke ice, just to offer a path to a reasonable solution,” she told me. “Demonstrating ties to a community, ties to a profession, ties to a respected program at a major university for this journalist, who wants so much to move forward, that must surely open a door to resolution.”
I asked Gutiérrez Soto how he would cope if he lost his appeal and was deported. “I’m not going back to Mexico,” he told me. “I want to make that very clear. I’m not going back to Mexico.” I took him to mean that he expected to prevail and remain lawfully in the United States. But, he added, “Given the circumstances of the current Administration, I would say to [asylum seekers] of every country, if you’re looking to come here, don’t. Don’t come here to endure insults, indignities, and attacks on your human rights. To come here and be trapped is the worst thing that can happen to a family.” The worldwide appeal of migration to America and the country’s promises of refuge and First Amendment freedoms were for decades our greatest source of international influence. Day by day during the Trump Administration, that influence fades.
Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul contributed reporting to this story.