TEXAS — Emilio Gutierrez doubts it was a sudden change of heart that prompted the United States government to release him from detention. On Thursday, the asylum-seeking Mexican journalist walked out of the west-Texas detention center that housed him and his 25-year old son for nearly eight months.
“We feel like we can breathe again,” Gutierrez told CNN.
“Our life has meaning again after being in that concentration camp where there are many people are held captive by the current administration’s immigration policies,” he said.
The Gutierrezes have been fighting an uphill battle for asylum since they first presented themselves to US Customs officers in June 2008. Gutierrez says he fled political persecution in Mexico and sought asylum in the US. What has followed are two detention stints and a lengthy court battle with the federal government.
Edward Beckett is among a team of lawyers and advocates defending Gutierrez in a civil rights suit against the Department of Homeland Security. The El Paso attorney questions the motives behind the government’s initial apprehension of his client and his eventual release this week. “It was done intentionally so they could avoid giving us more documents which makes us even more suspicious,” says Beckett, referring to government documents on the Gutierrezes’ detention.
Becket considers this week’s development a win for his client but knows the fight isn’t over with the Trump administration narrowing the path to asylum.
Suspicions arise in legal fight
The release of the father and son pair came as ICE was ordered to provide more documentation explaining why the two were detained in the first place.
Beckett told CNN that as a result of a Freedom of Information request by the National Press Club, which had been supporting Gutierrezes’ case since they were detained, the legal team obtained redacted internal ICE emails. Beckett believes that the unredacted correspondence would show a coordinated conspiracy to detain Emilio Gutierrez on the basis of his public, vocal criticism of the asylum process in the United States. Beckett and his team also submitted evidence that they argued shows that ICE has previously targeted five other immigrant activists.
When Beckett and the legal team raised this issue in their arguments for the father and son’s release, federal judge David Guaderrama zeroed in on it in a recent order. Judge Guarerrama wrote that “the evidence could establish that [the government] retaliated against immigrant activists who criticized the government’s policies.”
Guaderrama then ordered the government to provide unredacted versions of the documents, calling the possibility of such a conspiracy “a genuine issue of material fact.”
“If [the government] did retaliate against [the Gutierrezes] for that reason, they restricted [the Gutierrezes’] free speech rights because of the content and message of Mr. Gutierrez-Soto’s political speech.”
But just a few days before the scheduled hearing where the government would have to provide the documentation, the Gutierrezes were released. This means that there’s a chance that the government will not have to produce the documents.
“Today they had to hand over a bunch of documents instead they handed over Emilio to moot out the claims we alleged in the lawsuit,” Beckett told CNN.
“It seems telling that ICE chose to release us rather than have to go back before a judge and disclose their documents,” Gutierrez told CNN. “What do they have to hide?”
CNN has reached out to ICE for response but received no response.
Escaping a dangerous country for reporters
Gutierrez fled Mexico in 2008 with his then 15-year-old son. Beckett tells CNN that immigration authorities initially separated the two but they were later reunified and granted parole in 2009 to await adjudication of their case. The father-son duo settled into life in La Cruces, New Mexico, with legal work permits and ran a food truck.
In December, Gutierrez reported to an ICE office in El Paso for what he expected to be a routine check-in. Instead, he and his son were detained and taken to the border for immediate deportation. A last-minute deportation stay issued by a court was able to keep both Gutierrez and his son in the US, albeit in detention until Thursday’s release.
In Mexico, Gutierrez wrote for the newspaper El Diario del el Noreste in the northern state of Chihuahua. It’s one of the most dangerous regions in the country caught in a bloody cartel drug war. The seasoned journalist maintains his reporting alleging corruption within the Mexican military is what made him and his son targets for assassination.
‘The fight continues’
Gutierrez continues to plead his asylum case, citing the murders of fellow journalists and the constant targeting of his colleagues as they work to cover public corruption and the narco war. A December United Nations report called attacks on reporters south of the border “endemic.”
Adding to Gutierrez’ support are at least 19 press freedom groups including the National Press Club, Reporters without Borders and a local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“While we deeply regret the long detention for a reporter who violated no laws of this country, we are thrilled that, ultimately, common sense and American values have prevailed in this case,” said Kathy Kiely, press freedom fellow for the National Press Club’s nonprofit Journalism Institute, which organized the Gutierrezes’ defense.
Gutierrez said he will focus on securing asylum for him and his son. Their case is due back in court in mid-August for a status hearing. “The fight continues,” says Beckett. “He’s out now which is a great win but next step is to get him and his son asylum.”
Gutierrez’ release from detention will also allow him to pursue a journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan. He expects to move to Ann Arbor with his son, Oscar as the asylum proceedings continue.
“I will not go quietly. I have an obligation to my son to keep him safe,” Gutierrez told CNN.
“We have a new appreciation for freedom,” he said. “Only God knows why we are being faced with such a challenge.”