A journalist from Mexico who said he fled across the border with his 15-year-old son after receiving death threats for his critical coverage of the military in his country's bloody drug war arrived at a federal court Friday to plead his case for U.S. asylum.
Emilio Gutierrez Soto and immigration officials declined to comment before entering the closed courtroom. It was unclear how long the proceedings will take, and the judge may not immediately make a ruling once they are complete.
Gutierrez and his son showed up 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 drug cartel members.
Gutierrez's 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.
His attorney, Carlos Spector, has scheduled a Friday evening news conference to follow the proceedings.
On Thursday, 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, 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 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 Ciudad Juarez in 2010, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Based on reporting by Will Weissert of the Associated Press.