UPDATE, November 29, 5:28 p.m.: The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday granted Manuel Duran another temporary stay of deportation while the court reviews and fully hears his appeal.
Journalist Manuel Duran went to do his job one day in April. More than 200 days later, he remains in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at LaSalle Detention Center in Louisiana.
On Thursday, Duran and his attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) got a small piece of good news. Embroiled in a legal process to challenge his imminent deportation, Duran was granted by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals at least two more weeks—a stay of deportation while a legal motion is considered.
“We are encouraged that the Eleventh Circuit has postponed action on Manuel’s removal for two weeks and that it is considering our legal arguments,” Mary Bauer, deputy legal director of SPLC, said in a statement. “We believe Manuel faces grave danger if removed to El Salvador and that removal before his case is fully heard is an affront to the First Amendment. Given this danger and the outrageous facts of his arrest, we will do everything to protect him and his First Amendment right of freedom of the press.”
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Duran has been a journalist for over a decade, beginning in El Salvador and continuing for the past 11 years in the United States. Most recently he was living and working in Memphis as the founder and editor of the Spanish-language outlet Memphis Noticias. Duran exposed conditions in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) detention facilities and reported on collaboration between the Memphis Police Department (MPD) and ICE, a story that the MPD disputed and requested to be taken down. His attorneys at SPLC argue 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 July “that he was ‘without a doubt’ arrested for his journalism.”
Duran was arrested while covering a protest outside of the Shelby County Jail on April 3, 2017. The protest, which called attention to the privatization of ICE and conditions in prisons, was planned alongside citywide actions commemorating the 50th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The action was spearheaded by a local group known as Comunidades Unidas en Una Voz (CUUV).
Duran was wearing his press badge while reporting and live-streaming the protest. His reporting footage shows the moment when he began following law enforcement orders to move onto the sidewalk. What happened next looks chaotic.
In a legal petition filed by his SPLC attorneys, they described the moment when MPD began arresting Duran. “As Mr. Duran Ortega attempted to comply with the police officers’ orders, he felt an officer behind him and he showed the officer his press badge. The officer told him ‘I don’t care,’ and began to pull him from the crowd. An officer knocked the video camera from his hands.”
Duran was arrested, along with eight activists, and charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway or passageway, both misdemeanors. Duran was not the only journalist at the event, but he was the only one arrested. And of the nine people arrested that day, he was the only one not released when charges were dropped two days later.
Duran was held using an ICE detainer, a process—not mandatory or legally required—by which local law enforcement continue to detain a person at ICE’s request. This gave ICE agents time to apprehend Duran. They later moved him to LaSalle Detention Center in Louisiana, while his family, community, and news outlet remain in Memphis.
Duran has remained in LaSalle since. While his attorneys are working to prevent his deportation, they warned media on a press call Tuesday that it could be imminent. Two days later, the SPLC described the two-week stay of deportation granted by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals as a “temporary reprieve.”
Originally from El Salvador, Duran came to the United States in 2006 after experiencing threats to his life for his journalism. Before starting Memphis Noticias, Duran worked in radio at La Voz and Radio Ambiente. Duran’s immigration status hinges on an in absentia order of removal that was filed in immigration court in early 2007. His attorneys claim that Duran was never notified at the time of this hearing.
SPLC has been fighting his case in federal and immigration courts. At the federal level they are seeking his release from detention. In a petition filed on April 13, his attorneys argued that Duran’s “current detention is a direct result of his unlawful arrest and detention in violation of the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.” In immigration court, their goal is to have his case reopened so he can seek asylum based on claims that his life is at risk in El Salvador.
In Memphis, Duran became embedded in a local community that has advocated for his release every day since. Dozens of journalism and media organizations have stood behind Duran, calling for his immediate release from ICE custody. Within a month of his arrest and detainment, letters signed by dozens of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, the News Guild, Reporters Without Borders, and PEN America, called for Duran’s release.
A letter spearheaded by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and signed by five other journalism organizations described the importance of Duran’s local reporting work: “Manuel Duran plays a critical role in local Spanish-language journalism in underserved communities. He empowers the engagement of those individuals. As members of the Fourth Estate, we know removing Mr. Duran harms the community and the portrayal of their life experiences is dulled without his voice.”
Local Memphis reporter Otis Sanford opposed Duran’s arrest on air, and David Plazas published an editorial on behalf of the Tennessean editorial board and the USA Today Network-Tennessee condemning Duran’s detainment. In July, ten journalism organizations filed a brief with the court in support of Duran and his First Amendment claims.
PEN America, one of the freedom-of-press organizations that signed onto the amicus brief, continued to condemn Duran’s detention this week in a press release: “News that the government is preparing to deport Memphis journalist Manuel Duran Ortega imminently is a deeply distressing development in a case that threatens to chill the First Amendment rights of protestors and journalists across the country who engage on vital issues related to race and immigration.”
Even with the news that Duran has been granted more time, his case is far from over. SPLC organized a press call on Tuesday to update media about his case when they were afraid his deportation was imminent. Along with attorneys, Duran spoke on the call from LaSalle Detention Center and his partner, Melisa Valdez, spoke from Memphis. Duran said in Spanish, “I cannot go back to my country.” And Melisa reiterated, “His home is in Memphis.”