A journalist from Mexico pleaded his case for asylum in the United States on Friday, more than two years after he fled across the border with his 15-year-old son because of receiving what he called death threats for his critical coverage of the military during his country's bloody drug war.
Emilio Gutierrez Soto said he spent about seven hours presenting his case to Immigration Judge Robert Hough, but the process moved slowly because of frequent objections from the U.S. immigration attorney assigned to the case. The hearing, which was closed to the public, adjourned without concluding.
After the hearing was done for the day, Gutierrez said he presented hundreds of pages of documentation in support of his request, and that the attorney for the government raised objections every few pages. One problem was an improper translation of a document prepared by Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights.
"I feel that the attorney was delaying the case to stall for time and keep our expert witnesses from expressing their opinions," Gutierrez said. "We are talking about an immigration judge and an immigration attorney whose job it is . . . to keep from expanding the abundance of people looking for protection because of the violence in Mexico."
The U.S. government's attorney assigned to the hearing refused to comment or even to be identified, citing normal legal protocol.
Proceedings will resume Feb. 4. Hough may not rule immediately even when the hearing concludes.
Gutierrez and his son had appeared at a border checkpoint in New Mexico in June 2008 and declared their intent to seek asylum. He said his life was threatened nearly every day for more than two years after he wrote a series of stories accusing the military of abusing civilians in its search for cartel members and smugglers amid Mexico's brutal drug war.
"I'm not frustrated, I'm tired. I'm exhausted from all of these stressful times, the psychological pressure of knowing that they took away our homeland," Gutierrez said after the hearing, choking back tears. "And knowing that we don't have a country that accepts us with its laws and regulations even after being aware that we fled Mexico because the Mexican state was persecuting us."
His first day in court came four months after another Mexican journalist who claimed to have received threats from Mexican state officials protecting drug traffickers and had his U.S. asylum request granted _ making Jorge Luis Aguirre 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.
In El Paso to testify on Gutierrez's behalf Friday were Ricardo Sandoval of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, and Mike O'Connor, of the Committee to Protect Journalists in Mexico City, as well as Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, head of the Ciudad Juarez office of Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights. When it became clear there wouldn't be enough time for them to address the hearing Friday, the judge called the trio in to introduce themselves.
If they can't return in person when the hearing resumes, they will be allowed to testify by phone or video conference.
"He wants to make a careful decision, to take his time," Sandoval, a former U.S. newspaper correspondent long assigned to Mexico City, said of the judge.
Asked what he might do if his request is denied, Gutierrez said "we haven't come up with a plan B because we are confident that they are going to give us asylum."
Asylum proceedings in the U.S. generally 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, when in June 2008, men identifying themselves as soldiers ransacked his house and he was told they were planning to kill him. He headed with his son to a border crossing in New Mexico, about 170 miles west of El Paso.
The reporter was held in an immigration jail for seven months, and since then 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 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 potentially encouraging "a new exodus" of media members across the border.
Asked if he had any response to concerns that if he is granted asylum, a flood of other journalists may follow, Gutierrez said, "we hope that more journalists do seek political asylum because there is no security and the protocols that Mexico has put in place . . . don't offer the slightest bit of protection to journalists."
The Mexican government reported that more than 3,000 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez in 2010, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber in San Antonio contributed to this report.