EL PASO – Mexican reporter Emilio Gutiérrez and his son Oscar have been fighting to stay in the United States for nearly a decade.
That fight almost came to a grinding halt on Thursday after they were cuffed and hauled away by immigration agents during what his lawyer said should have been a routine check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The episode was the latest in what’s been a harrowing saga that predates President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration and asylum seekers. But it's now taken a new – and possibly dangerous – turn, his lawyer Eduardo Beckett told The Texas Tribune Friday.
Gutiérrez fled the border state of Chihuahua in 2008 when his reporting on cartels and military corruption there led to a price being placed on his head. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents admitted Gutiérrez into the country — and immediately placed him in a detention center. He sat there for seven months, until January 2009, when he was released as a parolee. His son was held in a separate detention center for juveniles and released after two months.
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Even though he had never committed a crime and followed all the instructions he was given while he waited on a judge to rule on the case, Gutiérrez and his son were eventually denied their asylum requests earlier this year. After the U.S. Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed Gutiérrez’s appeal of the decision last month, Beckett said that left only one option – asking that same Board to reopen the case.
“So we filed a motion to reopen his case with the Board of Immigration Appeals, and then at the same time we followed an emergency stay [of deportation],” he said.
Beckett said he knew that checking in with ICE Thursday was a gamble – but one he was willing to take because it was a relatively routine matter and one that’s required when a request is made to halt a deportation order pending a decision by the review board.
“We had assurances yesterday that they would, at the very least, wait for the Board of Immigration appeals to adjudicate the stay," Beckett said. "When we went to go report yesterday, ICE handcuffed him and took him away.”
While Gutiérrez and his son were en route to the border with ICE, Beckett was able to secure a temporary halt to their deportation. But they remain in ICE custody in Sierra Blanca, Texas – a remote outpost 90 miles east of El Paso. There is no timeline on their release but Beckett said he expects a decision on the request to the Board of Immigration Appeals within a few weeks. Until a decision comes however, Gutiérrez and his son can't be deported – but they can remain locked up.
In a statement, ICE officials in San Antonio didn't provide any additional details on why Gutiérrez was detained.
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“On July 19, 2017, a federal immigration judge denied [Gutierrez’s] request for asylum and ordered him removed. On Nov. 2, 2017, the Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed his appeal of the immigration judge’s decision. Gutiérrez subsequently filed with the BIA for a stay of removal, which was granted Dec. 7, 2017,” the statement reads. “Gutiérrez remains in ICE custody pending disposition of his immigration case.”
Gutiérrez’s case has sparked international attention and led to media-advocacy groups to call on immigration officials to grant his and his son's requests for asylum. Earlier this year, Gutiérrez accepted on behalf of his Mexican colleagues the National Press Club’s John Aubuchon Press Freedom Awards for their reporting in Mexico, currently considered one of the deadliest places in the Americas for journalists.
In an October press release, the National Press Club said Gutiérrez said “he and his Mexican associates ‘find [themselves] immersed in a great darkness,’ as reporters are killed, kidnapped and forced into hiding in retaliation for their reporting on drug cartels and government corruption.”
On Friday, Gutiérrez said by phone from the detention center that things in Chihuahua have changed since he first fled, but that they’ve become worse instead of better. He described trembling as he thought earlier this week that he was going to be left at the bridge and forced back into the country he fled.
“The [Mexican soldiers] are right there at the bridge,” he said in Spanish. “How can you be confident that they’re going to respect your life?”
Meanwhile, Beckett was more composed on Friday than he recalled being on Thursday after he saw Gutiérrez hauled off. He thought his client was going to think he had been set up because of how quickly ICE acted. He sought to allay any of those concerns on Friday.
“I don’t want you to think for one minute that I abandoned you,” he told his client in Spanish. “We will be with you until the end. But I need you not to give up.”
Beckett said that he thinks ICE could try to detain his clients for long enough that the experience breaks their spirits and they both give up and ask to be taken back to Mexico voluntarily. That happened earlier this year when Martin Mendez Pineda, who also fled Mexico after reporting on corruption, arrived in El Paso and sought asylum. But his detention eventually forced him to give up on the case and return to Mexico.
Despite several setbacks, Gutierrez said he’s not giving up. And even if he can't stay in the U.S., he said, he hopes to find a way to be sent somewhere else because he refuses to return to Mexico.
Read related Tribune coverage:
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A growing number of asylum-seekers are asking for safe haven based on a factor that isn't usually associated with a need to flee one's homeland: gender identity. In the days before the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark gay marriage case, immigrant rights groups were drawing attention to the plight of LGBT immigrants. [Full story]