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Judge Rules Trump Admin May Have Violated Free Speech Rights of Mexican Journalist Detained in U.S.

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We turn now to a major development in the case of a jailed Mexican journalist that Democracy Now! has followed closely. In El Paso on Wednesday, a federal judge issued a 26-page ruling that questioned the Trump administration’s detention of Emilio Gutiérrez Soto and his son Oscar, and ordered an August 1 hearing to examine whether immigration officials violated his First Amendment rights. Gutiérrez first sought asylum in the United States in 2008 after receiving death threats for reporting on alleged corruption in the Mexican military. He’s lived here in the U.S. for the past decade and has since won the National Press Club’s Freedom of the Press Award. We speak with Penny Venetis, a Rutgers University law professor who filed the First Amendment challenge in Gutiérrez Soto’s case; Bill McCarren, executive director of the National Press Club; and Eduardo Beckett, Gutiérrez Soto’s lawyer.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a major development in the case of a jailed Mexican journalist, jailed in the United States, who Democracy Now! has been following closely. In El Paso, Texas, on Wednesday, a federal judge issued a 26-page ruling that questioned the Trump administration’s detention of Emilio Gutiérrez Soto and his son Oscar, and ordered an August 1st hearing to examine whether immigration officials violated his First Amendment rights. Gutiérrez first sought asylum in the U.S. in 2008 after receiving death threats for reporting on alleged corruption of the Mexican military. He has lived here in the U.S. for the past decade. He has since won the National Press Club’s Freedom of the Press Award.

Speaking to Democracy Now! in a jailhouse interview last December, Emilio Gutiérrez Soto said deportation would be a death sentence.

EMILIO GUTIÉRREZ SOTO: [translated] Well, if we are deported, that obviously implies death. Why? Because ICE, under the Department of Homeland Security of the United States, by law, must give a report to the immigration authorities of Mexico and the consulate. And the immigration officials in Mexico have no credibility. It’s impossible to trust in them. To the contrary, many of those officials, many personnel at the consulate or immigration service, are caught up with organized crime.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, interviewed on Democracy Now! from jail. He has been detained since we spoke to him in December. Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, with at least seven media workers killed so far this year alone.

For more on what this new hearing could mean for Emilio and his son Oscar, we’re joined right now by three guests. Oscar also has been jailed since December. Here in New York, Penny Venetis is with us, Rutgers University law professor, who filed the First Amendment challenge in Gutiérrez Soto’s case. In El Paso, Texas, Eduardo Beckett is with us. He is Emilio’s lawyer. And in Washington, D.C., Bill McCarren, the executive director of the National Press Club, which is demanding Emilio be set free.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! But we begin with Penny Venetis, right here in the studio. Talk about the significance of this judge’s ruling, and what it was that you applied for relief for.

PENNY VENETIS: Well, we filed a petition for habeas corpus, which literally means, in Latin, “We have the body.” And we argued that Emilio was detained because he had made statements that are critical to the U.S. immigration policy and to the Trump administration. And the timing of his detention is really what the judge focused on. We showed that weeks after Emilio accepted a very prestigious award from the National Press Club and criticized U.S. immigration policy, he was detained. Now, he had been living freely for 10 years in the United States, established himself in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a very, very vibrant community, and he was an integral part of that. And he met every single requirement that immigration has placed on him. And it was just very uncanny that after he became public and talked about U.S. immigration policy, that he was detained. We argued that his detention by ICE was based solely on his statements and his criticism of U.S. immigration policy, and we were able to back that up.

We were able to show that Emilio was on a hit list, basically, that was put out right after President Trump took office, that showed that he was on a list of people to be arrested, even though his immigration case had not yet been decided, even though his asylum case had not been adjudicated. He was already on a list of 2,500 people who were targeted for arrest. And the court found that immigration’s—the U.S. government’s statements that he was detained solely because he lost his asylum claim was pretextual, because we revealed these emails, and we also made a strong case that his arrest coincided very, very strongly with political statements that he made.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you get this list? List of 2,500 people?

PENNY VENETIS: We got it through a Freedom of Information Act request that the National Press Club did. And Emilio’s name is just one of 2,500 names of people who were targeted for arrest. It was put out right after the inauguration of President Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: In Judge David Guaderrama’s 26-page ruling, he wrote, quote, “Mr. Gutierrez-Soto criticized ICE in a very public manner while accepting a prestigious award from the National Press Club. His arrest occurred only a couple of months later. … William McCarren, the executive director of the National Press Club affirms under oath that an ICE official told him to 'tone it down' during a meeting regarding Mr. Gutierrez-Soto, and he interpreted the comment in the context of the conversation to mean that the media should stop attracting attention to Petitioners’ cause.” That’s the judge’s statement. So, Judge Guaderrama ruled this evidence supported your claim that ICE, quote, “retaliated against them for asserting their free speech rights.” Bill McCarren, is that right? Joining us from D.C., head of the National Press Club. Explain exactly what happened, how you felt threatened.

WILLIAM McCARREN: So, in the meeting that is referred to in the judge’s decision, we were there, several days before Christmas, asking for Emilio’s release. I begged for his release. We knew that they had problems with space in the facility, and we thought there was a chance that around Christmastime something might happen. I’m a pretty calm person, and the meeting was cordial for a while, but I became very demonstrative in the meeting. And at some point, the lead counsel for ICE asked—said that we should “tone it down” and that we should—and it was in regard to the presentation that we were making at that time to ask for his release.

But I was there representing media, media interest, and the National Press Club. And that day, we were headed for a news conference at 1:00. And I want to return to that in a second, because I think that’s important. But this message that we should “tone it down,” before our 1:00 news conference, it was clear to me that they were trying to fire a shot across the bow, that, one, this would not be good for Emilio legally, you know, if we were out there making noise—in other words, you know, keep this all quiet and calm and tone it down, or your guy may have trouble processing through our system, right? Or he may have some other kind of trouble. It was an intimidation. It was an attempt at intimidation. And this was the lead counsel for ICE in the El Paso district.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about, Bill, why you gave Emilio Gutiérrez Soto this major award from the National Press Club.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of this and his statement before the press club.

WILLIAM McCARREN: Sure. Thanks, Amy. Well, we give an award every year for press freedom. And there’s been a terrible problem in Mexico of violence against journalists. And we thought that the writing that Emilio had produced was a great example of bravery. He was calling out military officials who were shaking down people in his town. And he knew this was dangerous, and he took the risk. At some point, the risk was so high that he fled. And so, this was one case, but we know there were many cases like this in Mexico where journalists were in danger. We thought Emilio was a great example to put a spotlight on this problem.

And Emilio is a very articulate, outspoken person. And he was in the press club, and I think he was moved to give, you know, free rein to his thoughts. And he’s very—it was a very interesting presentation, where he spoke about ICE and our policy, and spoke quite a bit about Mexico. It is not uncommon, I don’t think, his comments are of that. I think they’re similar to comments he might have made in the Las Cruces area or in other places. He’s an outspoken person. So, in this case, I think the ICE policy of locking Emilio up is trying to silence him. And I think that’s part of what the judge saw, as well.

And we were glad to have him. He’s such a wonderful person. You know, no one was concerned about having him have a full set of cutlery, for example. This is not a dangerous person. We were delighted to have him at our black-tie event. So, when I saw him in December in what’s essentially a prison, where everything is controlled and where all objects are kept from him, it’s really startling. He’s got an important contribution to make to our society as we’re trying to solve these very complicated problems at the border. His point of view, Mexican journalist point of view, on these matters is very important. And for it to be suppressed in this way is not helpful to solving any of our problems, and it’s cruel and unfair to Emilio.

AMY GOODMAN: This is award-winning Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto and his son in Texas. Gutiérrez first sought asylum in the United States in 2008 after receiving the death threats for reporting on alleged corruption in the Mexican military, detained after his asylum appeal was denied. I want to go to a clip of what he said to us, speaking through a translator, from the for-profit West Texas Detention Center in Sierra Blanca. Well, this is what—this was a clip of him speaking at the National Press Club.

EMILIO GUTIÉRREZ SOTO: [translated] Please, please, do not forget us. Do not forget to publish the pain, terrifying situation that I’m in and the terrifying manner in which journalists have to work in Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Emilio speaking to the National Press Club, because, in fact, he was detained at the time, is that right, Bill McCarren?

WILLIAM McCARREN: At the time that he was speaking at the press club, he was not detained.

AMY GOODMAN: He spoke twice to the press club, once in person and once from jail.

WILLIAM McCARREN: Oh, yes, I’m sorry. Thanks. Yeah, we did have him come in via audio, and that was the clip you were playing there. And he was—he was calling from jail. His attorney, Eduardo Beckett, who I think is with us, patched him through. And it was a very moving event. We had many journalists in the room who were there to cover our presentation in the room. We didn’t know that we we’d be able to get Emilio on the phone.

And so, yes, just a few days after he had been picked up, and on his way to being deported. Without outstanding, heroic legal work by Eduardo Beckett, Emilio would have been deported. He was cuffed and on his way, he and Oscar. And it was only an emergency stay that was able to solve this for the moment. And then we’re seven months now that he’s been in jail, a man with no criminal record, being held in what is an arbitrary detention.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to Eduardo Beckett, Emilio’s lawyer, speaking to us from El Paso. What is the status of his case right now? His immigration case has been reinstated?

EDUARDO BECKETT: Yes. So, the Board of Immigration Appeals has reinstated his asylum claim, and we have a hearing coming up on August 16th at 10:30 a.m. here in El Paso, Texas. And we’re going before the judge, and we’re going to have a status conference and basically talk about how to proceed forward and what kind of evidence the judge will consider. And the judge must consider his entire asylum claim and all the experts and expert opinions and country conditions. And so, that’s what’s going to happen on August 16th, 2018.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, before that is this judge’s ruling. Explain the significance of this free speech ruling that just came down.

EDUARDO BECKETT: I mean, it’s a great win for Emilio. It’s a great win for journalists, for free speech, for the First Amendment. So, basically—right?—we’re fighting two cases in two fronts. One is the asylum claim that’s before an immigration judge, and then the other case is before a federal district court, a habeas, to get Emilio out. So, the significance is, is that on August 1st, if the district court judge is convinced that the government retaliated against Emilio on his First Amendment rights, then he shall be released, so he can pursue his asylum claim outside the detention center.

Like Bill said, you know, it’s been seven months of torture, pain and suffering. He’s been—he spent his 55th birthday behind a jail. His son also spent his 25th birthday behind a jail cell, you know. And so, it’s pure torture and pain for a father to be in jail with his young son, who should be out, you know, going to school, having fun, and not in a jail setting just for seeking asylum.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Penny Venetis, before we wrap this up, the significance of this case for all journalists in the United States?

PENNY VENETIS: It’s critical for all journalists, but it’s also critical for all asylum seekers. Right now, we’re all focused on asylum seekers being separated from their families. This ruling says that asylum seekers have constitutional rights. And those constitutional rights include the right to free speech and the right to criticize the U.S. government, from which the asylum seekers are seeking asylum. So, it really has very, very broad implications. It’s a victory personally for Emilio and Oscar. It is a victory for journalists. But it, most importantly, is a victory for asylum seekers, because it says that even though you are being detained in the United States, you still have the ability to criticize that, and those comments cannot be used against you in your asylum proceedings, and they cannot be used to justify detention of you.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us, Penny Venetis, at Rutgers University, law professor; Eduardo Beckett, lawyer for Emilio Gutiérrez Soto; and Bill McCarren, head of the National Press Club, speaking to us from Washington, D.C.

In 30 seconds, we’re going to review what’s happened so far in the family separation cases, what’s happened to the children, scores of them under 5, who still are languishing in jails around the country. And then, what about the 3,000 children who are supposed to be reunited by July 26th? Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Nterini” by Fatoumata Diawara, performing here in our studios at Democracy Now! To see the full interview and performances, go to

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