The story of 54-year-old Emilio Gutierrez Soto and his 24-year-old son, Oscar, who have lived in Las Cruces for almost a decade as asylum-seekers after fleeing Mexico, has gained national attention after they were detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in El Paso on Dec. 7.
A longtime journalist who worked for a newspaper in Chihuahua, Gutierrez fled from Mexico in 2008 after receiving death threats for reporting on alleged corruption in the Mexican military, according to an attorney representing Gutierrez.
He and his son, then 15, entered the United States in June 2008, seeking asylum. Gutierrez spent seven months in detention before being released on parole in January 2009. After nine years, a judge denied his asylum request in July, a ruling he later appealed.
While on parole, Gutierrez made a living in Las Cruces by operating a food truck. He had stopped working in journalism after crossing into the U.S.
Last month, his appeal was dismissed by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals over a procedural error, leaving Gutierrez and his son at risk of deportation, according to El Paso attorney Linda Rivas, the executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center who is representing Gutierrez and his son.
Rivas said Gutierrez came close to being sent back to Mexico last week, but the appeals board intervened and issued a stay of his deportation.
However, she said, ICE revoked Gutierrez’s parole. And, he and his son were handcuffed, detained and transported to a facility in Sierra Blanca, Texas, Rivas said in a statement that was read during a news conference in Las Cruces on Tuesday.
“Emilio’s detention is indicative of new ICE policies of full enforcement with zero regard for human life,” Rivas said in the statement.
Tuesday’s news conference was organized by a group of Gutierrez’s friends and supporters who are calling themselves La Alianza. Led by local activist Elisa Sanchez, the group gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Solano Drive and demanded the immediate release of Gutierrez and his son.
“This country needs to protect asylum seekers like Mr. Gutierrez — not treat them like criminals. Journalists like Mr. Gutierrez represent the cornerstone of democracy — a free and independent press,” Gutierrez’s other attorney, Eduardo Beckett, said in a separate statement.
An El Paso ICE spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Since last week, stories about Gutierrez have been published by The Associated Press, The Washington Post, Texas Tribune and other media outlets. And, since last month, one national organization has been calling on the federal government to grant Gutierrez’s asylum request.
“Our hope is that U.S. officials will provide a beacon in that darkness, in keeping with the country’s long tradition of advancing press freedom, by granting Gutierrez the asylum he has requested in the United States,” Barbara Cochran, president of the board for the National Press Club Journalism Institute, said last month in a statement. “Sending him back to a country that is the most dangerous in the western hemisphere for journalists could amount to a death sentence.”
But, according to The Associated Press, the U.S. government rarely grants asylum. Over a five-year period ending in September 2016, the U.S. received about 267,000 asylum claims, but granted only 46,000, the AP reported on Tuesday.
In October, Gutierrez appeared at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to accept the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award on behalf of besieged journalists in Mexico, one of deadliest countries in the world for journalists.
Since 2008, 64 journalists have been killed in Mexico, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
While accepting the award in October, Gutierrez said he and his Mexican associates “find ourselves immersed in a great darkness,” according to the National Press Club.
Gutierrez spoke publicly by phone during news conference organized by the National Press Club on Monday.
“The biggest criminal organization is the government,” Gutierrez said. “I’m terrorized to step foot into Mexico. I don’t ever want to return to Mexico.”
During Monday’s news conference, Gutierrez denounced the conditions at the detention facility and said he’s considering going on a hunger strike, saying,”If I have to summit myself to a total hunger strike, I will. Our moral principles are bigger than the criminal procedures as to how they are treating us.”
During Tuesday’s news conference in Las Cruces, Sanchez informed those who had gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church that Gutierrez and his son had been transferred overnight to a facility in Otero County, then to a facility in El Paso.
According to Rivas, who spoke to Gutierrez before 10 a.m. Tuesday, Gutierrez and his son had slept on a concrete floor because they had not been assigned beds. He also told Rivas that his requests to see a doctor have been denied, and that he is growing sick because he is not receiving his medications.
Dozens of Gutierrez’s friends and supporters turned out for the news conference as well as elected officials, including city councilors Gabe Vasquez, Yvonne Flores and Gill Sorg. Representatives from U.S. Sens. Tom Udall’s and Martin Heinrich’s offices also attended.
Speakers during the 40-minute news conference spoke fondly of Gutierrez and decried actions by ICE and policies under the Trump administration.
Gutierrez’s situation is enfolding at the end of a year that saw the Trump administration ramp up arrests by ICE, call for more immigration agents and detention beds, begin the process of building a wall along the southern border, and rescind a popular program that protected young immigrants brought into the country illegally as children.
“ICE is completely out of control,” Sanchez said. “They’re inhumane. They’re making capricious decisions. And, they’re playing mind games with two innocent people.”
Jane Asche, who said she has known Gutierrez for about eight years, described him as a hardworking, humble and compassionate man.
“We feel that Emilio’s current incarceration in detention is unwarranted and unjust. … We want Emilio and Oscar released and home now,” Ashe said to applause.
Vasquez, the newly elected District 3 city councilor, decried Gutierrez’s case as a “travesty.”
“It’s not just Emilio, but it’s so many others just like him who are suffering from the same pain, as well as their families, who are having to go through this deportation horse that the president has authorized to come into out communities,” Vasquez said.
Before the news conference concluded, Sorg, who was re-elected as the District 5 city councilor, said the council is expected to discuss a resolution on Dec. 18 that would, if adopted, declare the city a “welcoming city” and affirm its commitment to creating a quality place to live and work through nondiscrimination.
N.M. Comunidades en Acción y de Fé will host an event in support of the resolution on Thursday at the Branigan Cultural Center, 501 N. Main St. The event begins at 6 p.m.
In closing Tuesday’s conference, Sanchez encouraged others to call their congressional representatives and ICE offices to demand that “Emilio and Oscar come home now!”
Carlos Andres López can be reached 575-541-5453, firstname.lastname@example.org or @carlopez_los on Twitter.
©2017 the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.)
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