Journalist Manuel Duran, arrested while covering immigration protest, could be deported by ICE
On April 3, 2018, journalist Manuel Duran was arrested while reporting on a protest in Memphis, Tennessee. Though all charges against him were later dropped, he was placed into the custody of Immigration & Customs Enforcement and could be deported.
Duran, who is from El Salvador, runs Memphis Noticias, a local Spanish-language news website. He previously worked as a reporter for WGSF, a Spanish-language radio station in Memphis.
On April 3, Duran covered a demonstration by immigration activists outside the Shelby Protest Criminal Justice Complex in Memphis. As he livestreamed the demonstration on Facebook Live, police arrested him and a number of the demonstrators. Duran and the demonstrators were charged with disorderly conduct and “obstruction of a highway or passageway.”
Police later said that they arrested the group because they blocked traffic while slowly crossing the street.
The Commercial Appeal, a daily newspaper in Memphis, reported that prosecutors agreed to drop all charges against Duran during a court hearing on April 5.
“This office has dismissed misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and obstruction of a highway or passageway filed Tuesday against Manuel Duran,” Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weinrich said in a statement to the Commercial Appeal. “There was not sufficient evidence to go forward with prosecution. This ends any legal issues Mr. Duran has with this office.”
Latino Memphis, a group that advocated for Duran’s release, said in a tweet that ICE detained Duran immediately after the court hearing.
Criminal charges for Manuel Duran have been dropped thanks to the work of Ann Schiller and our attorney Christy Swatzell. Unfortunately, ICE was waiting for him in the court room. He is currently with ICE. #StopICE— Latino Memphis (@LatinoMemphis) April 5, 2018
Local TV station WREG reported that Duran was taken into federal custody on April 5.
An ICE spokesman did not respond to a request for comment from the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
Shortly after being taken into ICE custody, Duran was moved to the LaSalle Detention Center in Louisiana, according to the Southern Poverty Center.
On April 13, lawyers from the SPLC filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on Duran's behalf in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. The petition argues that Duran's arrest by the Memphis Police Department and subsequent transfer to ICE custody were unlawful and the court should order his immediate release.
The SPLC petition also argues that the Duran's arrest and detention could be retaliatory, since he has previously reported on the Memphis Police Department's cooperation with ICE. According to the petition, a Memphis police officer asked him in 2017 to remove a story about the department's relationship with ICE.
"At no time do we target individuals based on their criticism and/or opinion of the Memphis Police Department," a Memphis Police Department spokeswoman told the Commercial Appeal. "As it relates specifically to the arrests at 201 Poplar Avenue, the officers responded to an unpermitted protest, issued lawful orders, made probable cause arrests, and acted within their authority."
An ICE spokesman told the Associated Press that Duran was detained by ICE because he was an "immigration fugitive."
"Mr. Duran Ortega was ordered removed from the United States by a federal immigration judge in January 2007 after failing to appear for his scheduled court date,” the ICE spokesman said. “He has been an immigration fugitive since that time. Mr. Duran Ortega is currently in ICE custody pending removal."
On April 16, Duran released a lengthy statement to the press, in which he thanked his supporters and described ICE's treatment of him and other detainees:
I cannot thank you enough for the support I have received since the moment of my arrest and subsequent transfer and incarceration in Louisiana. This episode in my life has not been easy, but I have taken it as an opportunity to learn first hand the drama and reality that our families are living when they are arrested by immigration and then deported. Families like Jorge’s, who is in detention with me. He has been in jail for 3 months; he has three very young children, 4, 5, and 10. One of them has a heart problem. But Jorge will be deported as soon as his trip is allowed by his country’s consulate. He could not fight his case because he could not afford an immigration attorney. Or Fernando’s, who is 64 years old and has three US citizen children, but has been in detention for the past 7 months and is now about to be deported back to his country, away from his family and everything he knows, after his attorney couldn’t win his case.
Once you’re inside the detention facility it is extremely hard to get the phone number of a private attorney and if you are lucky enough to find one, the attorney [costs] thousands [of] dollars. No one should be deprived of their freedoms just for wanting a better future for their children. This is a cruel system that criminalizes people who pose no danger to this country.
My greatest challenge will be to continue working for my people, no matter where I’m at. I could say that my destiny lies now in the hands of an immigration judge in Atlanta. Someone I have never met and someone who does not know my story and I may never be granted the opportunity to tell my story, but my destiny lies in the hands of the judge of judges, and I’m willing to accept His decision.
Through this experience I have learned first hand details about the treatment our immigrants receive before they are deported. How they keep the lights on day and night and you have to sleep with a towel over your eyes. How they make you lie in bed for 45 minutes, in what seems to be at random, after roll calling and you cannot use the phone or the bathroom during that time. How they would not let you know your attorney is on the phone. How you get paid dimes for work and you are on your own if you have no one outside adding funds to your commissary. How the visitation hours and your recreation hours happen at the time so you have to choose between seeing your family and getting some air. How the phones in the visitation room do not work and you have to scream through the soundproof windows. I will keep taking notes about my experience and I will keep on collecting my cellmates’ stories while I’m here.
I am so fortunate that my family has the ability to travel to Jena, LA to see me. Many families, families like Jose’s, cannot travel to see him because they cannot afford the trip. Many of my cellmate families cannot come to Louisiana because they cannot pay for it, or are too afraid to make the trip, or cannot come inside the facility because they are undocumented themselves.
As for me, I miss my home. I miss everything I left behind. I miss my life before April 3, I miss being in touch with my people and reading their messages. It is extremely difficult being cut off from everyone back home, uninformed, and alone. I try to stay positive as much as I can, but it’s not easy being isolated, and sometimes I just fail.
Thank you all of you who have shown solidarity with my story. Non-Profits, the press, who have given me their support. Thanks to my family. Thanks to all the people who have not abandoned me in this test. Thank you for all your thoughts and prayers. And finally, thanks to the team of lawyers who work to free me from this prison.
Manuel Duran's statement
On May 29, 2018, the Board of Immigration Appeals granted Duran a stay of deportation while it reviews his case, the Commercial Appeal reported. He will remain in ICE detention in the U.S. until the BIA rules on whether or not to reopen his case.
Duran told The Daily Beast in an interview that he believes "without a doubt" that the Memphis police and ICE deliberately targeted him for arrest as retaliation for his earlier reporting on the police department's cooperation with ICE.
He said that the police had no justification to arrest him.
"I was doing my work and nothing more, like any other journalist does," he said.
In September 2018, a federal district court in Louisiana denied Duran's petition for habeas corpus, dismissing his claim that ICE had detained him as retaliation for his reporting.
A month later, the Board of Immigration Appeals denied Duran's appeal to reopen his case.
Back in 2007, an immigration judge in Atlanta held a hearing on Duran's asylum case; when Duran did not show up for the hearing, the judge ruled that Duran should be deported to El Salvador since he had failed to provide evidence that he would be in danger if deported.
Duran and his attorneys made two arguments for why his case should be reopened. First, they argued that Duran had never been informed about the date and location of the 2007 immigration court hearing. Second, they argued (with the help of a coalition of press freedom groups) that Duran would be in danger if he were deported to El Salvador now, since the country had become a much more dangerous place for journalists since 2007.
The BIA rejected both arguments, declining to reopen Duran's case and paving the way for ICE to deport him. But BIA decisions are subject to review by federal appeals courts, and Duran's attorneys appealed the BIA's decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Eleventh Circuit was more sympathetic to Duran's arguments.
On November 30, 2018, a panel of three Eleventh Circuit judges granted Duran a new stay of deportation, preventing ICE from deporting Duran while the Eleventh Circuit is considering his appeal.
Duran is currently being held in an ICE detention center in Louisiana. While the Eleventh Circuit's stay prevents ICE from deporting Duran, it does not restrict the agency from continuing to detain him indefinitely.
After being held for more than 15 months by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Salvadoran journalist Manuel Durán was released on July 11, 2019.
Gracie Willis, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney who is representing Durán, told CNN that the journalist was released from an Alabama detention center on $2,000 bail.
He is expected to file an application for asylum soon, his attorney told CNN.
The Board of Immigration Appeals had ordered his case reopened earlier in the week, according to Memphis Noticias, the Spanish-language news outlet that Durán was running at the time of his arrest while covering a protest.
The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas said Durán showed the board that conditions had changed for journalists in El Salvador and that he showed a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of his anti-corruption political opinion.”
Durán said he fled El Salvador in 2006 due to death threats because of his journalistic work, according to the Knight Center.