A high-profile U.S. asylum case for a journalist from Mexico who fled across the border after saying he received death threats due to his critical coverage of the Mexican military during the bloody drug war has been delayed for 15 months, his attorney said Friday.
Emilio Gutierrez Soto spent about seven hours pleading his case to Immigration Judge Robert Hough in El Paso last month, but the hearing ended without all the evidence being presented. It had been set to resume Friday, but Gutierrez's lawyer, Carlos Spector, asked that it be rescheduled since he had been called to testify as an expert witness in another case in federal court.
Spector said through his staff that the hearing won't now be allowed to continue until May 9, 2012. No reason was given for such a lengthy delay, though Spector's office believes it could be that U.S. authorities hope Mexico's brutal cycle of drug violence will have calmed somewhat by then.
When told of the decision, Gutierrez at first laughed in disbelief, then complained the decision was politically motivated.
"We are here because we want to save our lives and it just seems so unfair because a country of freedom and human rights . . . is ignoring us," he said by phone. "They don't want us."
The initial hearing was closed to the public and the U.S. government's attorney assigned to the case has refused to comment or even to be identified, citing normal legal protocol.
Gutierrez and his then 15-year-old son 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 his country's military of abusing civilians in its search for cartel members and smugglers.
Both were held separately in immigration jail for seven months, but eventually released. Since then, Gutierrez has obtained a work permit and supported himself doing odd jobs in Las Cruces, New Mexico, west of El Paso.
"We were looking for refuge and they put us in prison," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez is not in danger of being taken into custody again and can't be deported until his asylum hearing is completed and, if he is turned down, all of his appeals are exhausted.
"I'm feeling more and more that our case is an inconvenience for them," he said of U.S. authorities. "They feel that in me, they could open the door so that many Mexicans flee like I did."
Even when it next resumes, Gutierrez Soto's hearing may not conclude in one day and, if it does, the judge may not rule immediately.
Planning to testify on his behalf are 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.
Gutierrez's first day in court came four months after another Mexican journalist, Jorge Luis Aguirre, claimed to have received threats from Mexican state officials protecting drug traffickers 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.
Still, 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.