The persecution of Manuel Duran

An undocumented immigrant journalist, arrested while doing his job, faces deportation

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

It is a quirk of the current age that Manuel Duran managed to film his own arrest. Duran, a Salvadoran journalist and undocumented immigrant who has been living in the United States since 2006, was arrested in April by the Memphis Police Department as he was covering a protest against local law enforcement’s alleged cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. He livestreamed the entire event right up to the moment his camera was knocked from his hand by the police as they seized him. Several other attendees at the protest had their cameras out as well, and some of them also caught Duran’s arrest on tape.

The picture that emerges from these videos and from interviews with Duran’s attorneys and allies is an ugly one: an independent journalist subjected to an unjustified arrest while doing his job -- Duran says he was targeted -- which resulted in his transfer to ICE custody. Duran, who was quickly cleared of criminal wrongdoing, is nonetheless trapped in an ICE detention facility as lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Latino Memphis work to stop his deportation back to El Salvador, the country he fled over a decade ago because, he says, he feared for his safety.

His plight is an increasingly common feature of the times: an undocumented immigrant with no criminal record who built a life and a career in United States, who had established himself in a community that came to rely on his work, and who was ensnared by an aggressive (and indiscriminate) effort by federal and state law enforcement agencies to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants.

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Manuel Duran left El Salvador in 2006 because, he says, he feared for his life. Duran had been working in his home country as a television and radio journalist for more than a decade until, according to a habeas corpus petition filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, he was targeted by a rival journalist and arrested on fraudulent charges. When he began receiving death threats, the filing states, Duran fled for the U.S.

Not long after he arrived in the country, Duran was picked up by Customs and Border Patrol in Laredo, TX. He was given a notice to appear before an immigration judge that had no hearing date, and he provided CBP an address where the government could send additional documents. According to Duran’s lawyers, the notice with the location and date for his immigration hearing was sent to the incorrect address and returned to the Department of Homeland Security. “There was confusion with the street [address],” Maximiliano Gluzman, an attorney for Latino Memphis, told me, “and the mail didn’t arrive anywhere. So Manuel wasn’t aware of the fact that he had to appear in court, or when he had to appear in court.” Because he didn’t show up at the hearing that he didn’t know was happening, an immigration judge ordered his deportation in absentia and Duran became what ICE refers to as an “immigration fugitive.”

Duran, meanwhile, settled in Memphis and restarted the life and career he’d left behind in El Salvador. He worked as a newscaster, announcer, and anchor with a series of Spanish-language radio stations and launched his own news website, Memphis Noticias, in 2014. He reported on local events and interviewed city officials, including the mayor. In the process, he built an audience and a following. “I would describe him as the lighthouse because the [Latino] community here lived somehow in darkness,” said Yuleiny Escobar, a Memphis-area activist and friend of Duran’s who was arrested alongside him. “The news was the news for Univision or Galavision, but no such thing as local news that they could clearly understand. Manuel was the person that brought them the news, that brought them information of what was going on.”

Memphis Noticias provided critical reporting on the horrific story of Bardomiano Pérez Hernández, a Mexican immigrant who was shot during an attempted robbery of the van he was riding in, and whose body remained in the van, undiscovered, for seven weeks at a Memphis police impound lot. Duran and his colleague Nena Garza were the first to track down Hernández’s ex-wife and interviewed her shortly after she’d identified his remains.

Duran also reported extensively on ICE operations within the city, and he investigated allegations that Memphis law enforcement was cooperating with ICE, contradicting public denials from the police and city officials. In July 2017, Duran published an interview with a woman who said a Memphis police officer pulled over her friend and then contacted immigration authorities who arrived and detained her. According to the SPLC, Memphis police contacted Duran after the interview was published and asked him to take the story down.

“His main focus wasn’t the injustices that are happening or anything like that. He wasn’t a troublemaker,” Tracy Love, stepfather of Duran’s fiancee and organizer of the #FreeManuelDuran movement, told me in an interview. “But he did report on the truth of what was going on with some things. He tried to give the benefit of the doubt in some areas, but he could only do that for so long.”

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

On April 3, the day before the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, several of the city’s activist groups staged a march to 201 Poplar Ave., the complex that houses the county jail, the sheriff’s department, and the local police department. Representatives from the Coalition of Concerned Citizens and Communidades Unidas en Una Voz organized the march to protest Memphis law enforcement’s alleged cooperation with ICE. Several of the marchers formed a mock chain gang that was led through the streets by a protester dressed as an ICE agent.

Duran was on the scene to provide live coverage of the march, streaming the event on Memphis Noticias’ Facebook page. In a grimly ironic twist, Duran’s coverage of the protest offered some unintended foreshadowing of what Memphis law enforcement and ICE were about to do to him.

“What is the real purpose [of the demonstration], in one minute, please,” Duran asked Yuleiny Escobar, who helped organize the march. “It’s that the police are cooperating with ICE and they’re detaining people for more than 48 hours,” she replied, referring to the detainer requests ICE makes of local law enforcement agencies to extend the detention of suspected undocumented immigrants. “They’re not respecting due process.” As the protest march approached 201 Poplar Ave., Duran offered commentary on the marchers’ grievances with immigration authorities. “They’re not removing criminals, according to the protesters, but rather they’re removing people who haven’t done anything,” he said.

Eventually the marchers filed into a crosswalk in front of the sheriff’s office, at which point the police asserted themselves and started ordering people out of the road. Those orders were ignored, and the police seized one protester, Keedran Franklin, and dragged him away from the column of people to be arrested.

Duran joined the media scrum that formed around Franklin. As he filmed the arrest, an officer made repeated demands to “get out of the street.” Duran started moving backward toward the sidewalk, keeping his camera trained on the arrest as the officer continued barking the order. According to the SPLC’s habeas petition, Duran’s progress was impeded because “a bottleneck occurred where two cars were parallel parked against the sidewalk to which officers were instructing people to move.” As the officer’s commands grew more hostile, a protester named Spencer Kaaz attempted to intercede on Duran’s behalf. “He’s going, he’s going,” Kaaz can be heard saying in Duran’s video. “Go now,” the officer shot back. “We’re going together,” Kaaz replied.

Moments later, the officer ordered Duran arrested: “Get him, guys.” The camera shook as a policeman’s gloved hand moved to cover the lens. After some jostling, it fell to the ground. Escobar and another protester tried to intervene, clinging to Duran and shouting to the officers: “He’s a reporter! He’s a reporter!” They were pried off him by the police and arrested. Duran was handcuffed and taken away, his press credential still dangling from his neck.

Duran was charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway, both class-C misdemeanors. The criminal complaint against him states that he “refused” to leave the road and “caused a hazard.” The video evidence disproves both allegations. There was no indication that he was in any way disruptive or doing anything except trying to comply with police orders as he was reporting. While protesters screamed and resisted their detention, Duran was silent, offering nothing but a frightened smile as officers took him into custody.

Memphis law enforcement showed no similarly urgent interest in the many other reporters and observers who were in the road snapping photos and capturing video of the protest. There were even people in the street videotaping Duran as he got arrested. The person who shot this video of the police arresting Duran and Escobar was told to “please move out of the street” by one of the officers. After taking just a couple of steps back (and while still in the street) another officer told him, “Right here, right here, right here, that’s good.”

Eight protesters were taken into custody by the police, all on minor charges. Duran was the only journalist arrested. Duran, his attorneys, and his allies argue that his critical coverage of Memphis law enforcement was a factor in his arrest, and that he was targeted for retaliation. He told The Daily Beast in an interview that he was “without a doubt” arrested because of his reporting on Memphis police: “I was doing my work and nothing more, like any other journalist does.”

The Memphis Police Department has categorically denied targeting Duran, telling the The Commercial Appeal: “At no time do we target individuals based on their criticism and/or opinion of the Memphis Police Department.”

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

For most of the people arrested at the April 3 MLK Day protest, detention was short-lived and they were quickly able to return to their lives. For Manuel Duran, this unwarranted arrest on trifling infractions upended his entire existence and abruptly tore him away from his community.

Duran was booked into the Shelby County Jail and, according to court records, his bond was set at $100 and was paid on the evening of April 3 by his fiancee, Melisa Valdez. The protesters who were booked alongside Duran also posted their bonds and were released that same evening. Duran was not.

He spent April 4 in jail and on April 5, he appeared in court, where the district attorney dropped both misdemeanor charges, likely because the video evidence showed there was absolutely no case to be made against him. But, despite having met the conditions for release for the second time, Duran was taken back to his cell. A short time later, he was in the custody of ICE agents, to the surprise and distress of his family. “We get a call that he’s being released right now, so if you could file around to go and get him out,” Tracy Love told me. “And before you know it, immigration is taking him out the other side of the door.”

ICE had filed an immigration detainer against Duran on April 3 requesting that the Shelby County Jail hold him for 48 hours so immigration officers could come and pick him up. ICE detainer requests require the voluntary cooperation of local law enforcement -- police departments can choose to work with ICE or they can ignore the requests entirely. The requests themselves are not reviewed or authorized by a judge; they are issued unilaterally by ICE. This can put local police departments in a difficult spot, given that they’re being asked to detain people without any presentation of evidence or probable cause. “There’s not any kind of independent oversight, and the police have no way of knowing ... because they’re just receiving a request to detain,” said Thomas Castelli, legal director for ACLU Tennessee. “They’re just basically getting something issued straight from the agency with no judicial oversight.”

In Manuel Duran’s case, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office denied he was held on an ICE detainer and put out a statement the day he was transferred to ICE custody saying that Duran’s detention had been extended because “he refused to sign bond,” adding: “He was not being held on an ICE Hold.” Michelle LaPointe, SPLC’s acting deputy legal director and one of Duran’s attorneys, was perplexed by the sheriff’s department’s position. “They’ve denied this. I’m not quite sure how or why,” she told me. “We have a copy of the detainer, and the government in its response to our habeas petition cites the detainer as the reason they could take custody of him.”

When I asked the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office if it still maintained that Duran was not held at ICE’s behest, a spokesperson wrote back simply: “Mr. Duran was booked into the Jail on charges brought by another agency. ICE representatives attend (sic) his court proceeding and were present when the charges were dismissed. ICE representatives detained Mr. Duran when he was released from the Jail.”

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Duran was transferred directly from the Shelby County Jail to the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, LA, more than 300 miles from Memphis. The LaSalle facility is located in a remote part of the state and has become a key part of the Trump administration’s policy of expediting deportations.

The conditions inside LaSalle (just one attorney visitation room for 1,200 detainees) and its distance from major population centers make it extremely difficult for detainees to obtain representation and stay in contact with their families. In a statement from inside LaSalle, Duran reported that “they would not let you know your attorney is on the phone,” “visitation hours and your recreation hours happen at the time so you have to choose between seeing your family and getting some air,” and “it is extremely hard to get the phone number of a private attorney and if you are lucky enough to find one, the attorney is costs thousands dollars (sic).”

Duran was one of the “lucky” ones -- his status as a public figure and connections to the activist community meant that he had immediate access to legal representation, and his attorneys quickly began working to get him released. SPLC filed its habeas petition with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. His lawyers also filed a motion with the Atlanta Immigration Court (which issued his removal order in 2007) to reopen his case, arguing that he had never received the initial notice to appear. That motion was denied, so they filed an emergency motion with the Board of Immigration Appeals to stay Duran’s deportation. That motion was granted in late May, and Duran’s deportation was stayed while the board reviews his case.

The stay came through just in time: ICE had planned to put Duran on a plane back to El Salvador the very next day. In the less than two months he’d spent in ICE custody, the agency had bounced him around Louisiana from LaSalle to another facility in Pine Prairie, and then to a deportation staging facility in Alexandria. Prolonged detention and the emotional whiplash from being brought to the brink of deportation took a toll on Duran. “To have to be fighting your immigration case from within detention is very difficult,” said attorney Michelle LaPointe. “The news … he received from BIA I think helped his spirits. And he’s fighting his case and wants to continue fighting his case, so that was a bit of good news, though, of course, the appeal remains pending.”

Duran was taken back to LaSalle to wait out the appeal process. He still faces the threat of deportation back to a country he fled to escape violence, and which has only grown more dangerous in the 12 years since he left. Duran’s allies warn that he would likely face persecution if he were sent back. “El Salvador is an extremely dangerous place for everybody, especially an extremely dangerous place for a journalist,” said Maximiliano Gluzman. “People follow his activities, a journalist, from El Salvador. … I think he has very good reason to expect a not-warm welcome, and to expect that he will be at risk if he returns to El Salvador.”

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

In almost every interaction with law enforcement -- from the local police to federal immigration authorities -- Manuel Duran has had his rights violated and freedoms abrogated.

Even if you believe the Memphis Police Department’s denials that it targeted Duran, his arrest was still thoroughly unjustified and a violation of his First Amendment rights. The Shelby County Jail kept him detained even after he’d posted bond and all the spurious charges against him were dropped. And after dodging deportation by a hair’s breadth, he remains in ICE’s custody, even though he is not dangerous, has no criminal record, and is a public figure who is unlikely to attempt to go into hiding. The government’s desired outcome in Duran’s case is to send him back to one of the world’s most dangerous and violent countries, where journalists like him routinely face death threats.

In years past, Duran would have been a low priority for immigration enforcement, but new Homeland Security guidelines issued early in the Trump administration rescinded existing guidelines for prosecutorial discretion and effectively turned every undocumented immigrant into a priority deportee. It’s impossible to argue that Duran presents a threat to the community that he worked to inform, but the political position of the administration (which is reflected in its policy choices) is that undocumented immigrants are dangerous by virtue of who they are.

Duran’s fellow journalists have also failed him. The story of his unjust arrest and detention has been covered by local Memphis media (The Commercial Appeal in particular has doggedly kept on top of the story) and Spanish-language outlets, and The Daily Beast interviewed Duran from LaSalle. But major newspapers, broadcast networks, and cable news channels have mostly ignored it. This coverage blackout endures despite journalism groups and press activists launching and supporting campaigns on Duran’s behalf.

One would think that the national press would take interest in a journalist who was arrested for doing his job, who is still being detained more than three months later, and whose life might be put at risk through deportation. His story is certainly worthy of more attention than a lawyer-pundit being shunned on Martha’s Vineyard. The persecution he faces is more acute than that of the “renegades of the intellectual dark web” who are “locked out of legacy [media] outlets.” And the suppression of his speech rights is real in ways that supposedly deplatformed right-wing campus speakers can only fantasize about. But Duran’s ordeal has remained largely unnoticed outside of activist groups, local journalists, and his community in Memphis.

Manuel Duran made a life in the United States by providing a voice to a community that lacked its own. It is outrageous that so few of his colleagues are lending their voices while his own is being silenced.

UPDATE (9/10/2018): Manuel Duran’s petition for habeas corpus was denied and dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. His deportation order is still under review by the Board of Immigration Appeals.