Mexican journalist to ask judge for US asylum

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By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press
Published: 1:30AM PST 1-21-2011

EL PASO, Texas – A Mexican journalist who said he fled across the border with his teenage son in 2008 after receiving daily death threats while covering the country’s bloody drug war was scheduled Friday to finally plead his case for U.S. asylum before a federal immigration judge.

Emilio Gutierrez Soto and his son, then 15, showed up at a border checkpoint in New Mexico and declared their intent to seek asylum. Gutierrez had written a series of stories about alleged Mexican military abuses of civilians and claims he received daily death threats.

Since crossing the border 2 1/2 years ago, Gutierrez’s wait for an asylum hearing included seven months at a federal detention center in El Paso, separated from his son. His court date comes four months after another Mexican journalist, Jorge Luis Aguirre, claimed similar threats and had his U.S. asylum request granted — making him the first reporter to receive asylum since Mexico’s bloody drug war erupted and cartels began targeting the media to silence coverage.

Aguirre fled across the border after Gutierrez, but pleaded his case through an application rather than in court. The September decision to grant Aguirre asylum was heralded by supporters as a potential indication that the U.S. was recognizing the country’s reporters as a targeted group.

Gutierrez did not answer calls to his cell phone Thursday night. His attorney, Carlos Spector, declined comment through his staff, citing a heavy workload preparing for the closed-door hearing. But he scheduled a Friday evening news conference following the proceedings set to take place in El Paso’s federal courthouse. The judge may not immediately make a ruling.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said she could not comment, or even confirm whether a hearing was taking place. Asylum proceedings in the U.S. are not public, and federal officials routinely decline to even acknowledge individual cases, citing the need to protect applicants.

Gutierrez was a reporter in Ascension, Mexico, where he said he received death threats nearly every day for more than two years as he wrote stories about the Mexican army’s rough treatment of civilians in its search for drug cartel members. He said that in June 2008, men identifying themselves as soldiers ransacked his house, and he was told they were planning to kill him.

Gutierrez headed with his son to a border crossing in New Mexico, about 170 miles west of El Paso. Since being released from an immigration jail following 7 months detention — without explanation to the public or Gutierrez himself — the reporter has supported himself by working odd jobs around Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Mexican asylum-seekers face long odds. The U.S. receives nearly 3,000 asylum requests from Mexico each year, but just 252 of those cases were granted between 2005 and 2009.

Despite the violence gripping Mexico, fear of being hurt isn’t sufficient grounds for asylum. Cases hinge on proving that a person is being persecuted because of race, religion, political views, nationality or membership in a particular social group.

Aguirre wrote in an e-mail Thursday that he thought Gutierrez had a “great chance of winning” because the case is internationally known. But he said the U.S. government also may be concerned about letting two journalists from Chihuahua state receive asylum and potentially encouraging “a new exodus” of media members across the border.

Above all, Aguirre said the court should consider the lives of Gutierrez and his son.

“That they would be dead in Mexico, no one disputes,” Aguirre wrote in Spanish.

The Mexican government reported that more than 3,000 people were killed in Ciduad Juarez in 2010, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world.