HOUSTON (AP) — Advocates for an award-winning journalist trying to win asylum in the United States because he says he received death threats in Mexico accused U.S. immigration officials Friday of unjustly detaining him based on a disputed 1999 incident.
An attorney for Emilio Gutierrez Soto said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are trying to discredit the journalist, who in October accepted the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award from the National Press Club in Washington on behalf of Mexico's journalists.
"In reality, Emilio has a clean record. He's always abided by the law," said his attorney Eduardo Beckett.
In a letter released by the press club Friday, an ICE official accuses Gutierrez of being "less than forthcoming" in 1999 when he was accused of misrepresenting whether he was living in the U.S. or not while holding a border crossing card allowing only temporary stays. Gutierrez agreed then to give up the card and was deported, according to Beckett.
But Gutierrez sought asylum in the U.S. in 2008, saying he faced death threats in Mexico due to his work as a reporter. He was detained then by U.S. authorities for several months before being released and has lived in El Paso, Texas, with his 24-year-old son, Oscar, until the two were taken into custody again in December.
ICE has not previously raised the 1999 incident in its public statements about Gutierrez's case.
An immigration judge in July denied his request for asylum and ordered his deportation. The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed to temporarily halt his removal in December, the same month he was detained again.
Gutierrez has said he fears for his life because he wrote articles alleging that military forces were robbing and extorting local people in Chihuahua, which borders New Mexico and Texas.
The letter released Friday was sent to U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, an El Paso Democrat who visited Gutierrez and has pressed his case with authorities.
ICE's acting El Paso office director for enforcement and removal, William Joyce, writes in the letter that Gutierrez should stay detained because he tried to enter the U.S. in 1999 "by fraud or willfully misrepresenting a material fact."
Gutierrez was "less than forthcoming about the facts and circumstances of this previous removal" when he sought asylum in 2008, Joyce said.
ICE declined on Thursday to answer questions about why it believed Gutierrez had been misleading or may have committed fraud although Gutierrez signed a privacy waiver ICE had requested in order to disclose more details about his case.
Beckett said Gutierrez denies having lived in the U.S. in violation of the crossing card's conditions. Gutierrez believes he may have been suspected because a receipt in his wallet had his name and a U.S. address on it, even though the receipt was for an errand he had run for a family member, Beckett said.
Beckett said that after Gutierrez agreed to give up the card and be deported to Mexico, he did not try to re-enter the U.S. until he and his son sought asylum in 2008.
According to Beckett, Gutierrez told authorities of the incident when he sought asylum.
Mexico remains one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists, in line with countries in active conflict zones such as Iraq and Syria. At least 10 journalists were killed in Mexico in 2017, and one journalist's body was found in January with stab wounds in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, across the Rio Grande from the Texas city of Laredo.
Follow Merchant on Twitter at @nomaanmerchant.