What started out as a “just another day” in Memphis-based journalist Manuel Duran’s life ended in his arrest by local police and later Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The arrest, Duran claims, was retaliation for his reporting about local police actions.
Duran, 42, who is sometimes listed as Duran Ortega, was covering a Memphis protest in April when he was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway or passageway. In a video taken of the incident, Duran appears to be wearing a press badge and was not the only journalist in the street.
After the charges were dropped, Duran was released from the Shelby County jail and ICE agents were there waiting to arrest him, the county sheriff’s spokesperson Earle Farrell said. A Memphis Police arrest report claimed that Duran’s refusal to get out of the road “caused a hazard.” It also mentioned that he did not have a U.S. identification.
Duran believes his arrest wasn’t over a simple hazard, but that he was targeted for his coverage of the Memphis Police Department in Memphis Noticias, the online publication he founded.
A year before Duran’s arrest, Memphis Noticias published a video interview with a woman whose friend was arrested by Memphis Police and later ended up in ICE custody despite promises from Mayor Jim Strickland that the city’s government was not cooperating with ICE.
“There are three cases already confirmed in some manner in which people are guaranteeing that ‘yes, the Memphis police are involved with immigration where obviously there is this collaboration,’” Duran said in the Spanish-language video.
Duran received text messages from the Memphis Police Department demanding he take the video down, he said. The journalist refused, but offered to interview department officials and publish their side of the story, his fiancée Melisa Valdez explained to The Daily Beast.
Memphis Noticias had, of course, published other stories that were “embarrassing” for the police department, said Jeremy Jong, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney who now represents Duran.
A court petition filed by the SPLC said that Duran, through Memphis Noticias, reported on police shootings, individual incidents of police misconduct, demonstrations calling for law-enforcement accountability, MPD collaboration with ICE, and local ICE enforcement actions and the resulting hardship on immigrant families.
Duran also mentioned he wrote about about a man whose body was found in a vehicle at the police impoundment lot.
The petition further argued that the “Detention of Mr. Duran Ortega is a direct result of Memphis law enforcement officers’ and ICE officers’ illegal and unconstitutional actions in targeting, arresting, detaining, and seeking to deport Mr. Duran Ortega. MPD unlawfully arrested Mr. Duran Ortega to silence and retaliate against him.”
Duran told The Daily Beast, in an interview conducted in Spanish, that he was “without a doubt” arrested for his journalism.
The police department denied the claim. “The question that we targeted Mr. Duran is just false,” said Memphis Police director Michael Rallings in an April press conference.
“The allegation that ICE engages in retaliation towards individuals who protest is categorically false. Mr. Duran was arrested [by ICE] because he is in violation of federal immigration law,” ICE spokesman Bryan D. Cox told The Daily Beast.
When he was arrested, Duran recounted, he was scared because he had never had an encounter like that with the police. “I was doing my work and nothing more, like any other journalist does,” he said.
Duran left El Salvador in 2006 after receiving death threats for reporting on corruption in law enforcement and the judicial system, the petition said. He received a removal order in 2007 after he missed an immigration hearing, but he contends he never received notice of that hearing.
A motion to reopen his immigration case is pending review from the Board of Immigration Appeals. ICE tried to deport Duran while his case was still pending, but he was allowed to stay after his lawyers filed an emergency motion to halt the deportation.
It is common for ICE to try to deport people who are trying to reopen their cases, Jong said. ICE does not decide cases, but simply executes court orders of removal, ICE spokesman Cox explained.
Duran is currently being held in the LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana, but his attorneys will attempt to have him released on an order of supervision so he may return home while his case is pending.
The journalist described ICE detention as “uncomfortable” saying he once found a cockroach in his food. Jong said that, at one point, Duran did not have a blanket.
“All ICE detention facilities are subject to regular inspections and ICE is fully committed to the health and safety of all persons in custody," the ICE spokesman responded.
Valdez said she and her mother have tried to keep Memphis Noticias alive while Duran is incarcerated, but it’s a challenge. “We try to keep it up to date, but it’s not the same. I don’t have any experience with journalism," she said.
She is also working to keep Memphis Noticias readers abreast of developments in Duran’s case, posting regular updates on the publication’s Facebook page and online at freemanuelduran.org. Valdez has also created a donation page and petition for his release that had nearly 1,800 signatures as of this weekend.
Jong said that Duran’s journalism holds local officials accountable and informs the community about how government policies affect their lives. “He’s the only one that’s doing it for the Spanish-speaking community in Memphis. His absence is a huge loss," he said.
Duran is not the first ICE critic to be arrested on immigration charges. NPR reported in March that at least 20 activists were arrested on immigration charges—although in those cases, it appears that ICE, not a local police department, typically made the arrests.
However, Jong said, if Duran’s arrest was indeed targeted, it is part of a greater pattern.
“ICE is targeting people who speak against them,” he said, “We see cases from all over the country where activists who speak out against ICE are being arrested.”