At the time of his arrest while covering a protest, “I was doing my work and nothing more, like any other journalist does,” says Manuel Duran.
Amid new revelations showing that Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) appears to be increasing its indiscriminate arrests of undocumented immigrants—not prioritizing those with serious criminal records—one journalist in custody and facing possible deportation says in a new interview that he believes his arrest was absolutely the result of his reporting critical of the Memphis Police Department and Department of Homeland Security.
At the time of his arrest in April, “I was doing my work and nothing more, like any other journalist does,” 42-year-old Manuel Duran told The Daily Beast in Spanish. He said he believes he was apprehended “without a doubt” as a result of his reporting.
Memphis police arrested Duran, who runs the Spanish language news site Memphis Noticias, on April 3 saying he refused to clear the street and presented a hazard. He, like other journalists, was covering a demonstration against ICE. Seconds before police showed up at the event, he is heard in the Noticias video coverage saying that sometimes undocumented immigrants who’ve committed no serious crime are arrested by police and then turned over to ICE. The charges against Duran, also known as Manuel Duran Ortega, were dropped April 5, but ICE agents promptly arrested him outside the Shelby County Jail upon his release.
While Noticias had published stories critical of the police department’s conduct, including its alleged collaboration with ICE, the agency has dismissed the accusation Duran’s arrest was retaliation. Spokesperson Bryan D. Cox told The Daily Beast, “Duran was arrested [by ICE] because he is in violation of federal immigration law.” Duran, who came to the U.S. in 2006 after fleeing El Salvador, “received a removal order in 2007 after he missed an immigration hearing, but he contends he never received notice of that hearing,” the publication added.
Duran’s case has been highlighted by Reporters Without Borders, known by its French acronym RSF. Margaux Ewen, head of the group’s North America bureau, expressed concern “that a journalist wearing his press credentials while reporting was arrested.” She noted that he “came to the United States after fleeing life-threatening situations in his home country and has been well-known in Memphis for covering controversial issues related to local and federal law enforcement ever since. We urge the U.S. government to consider the consequences of sending an investigative journalist back to a country where he has faced death threats.”
RSF’s 2018 press freedom index ranks El Salvador 66 out of 180 countries—a drop of 4 spots since 2017. The index states, “The media are among the victims of the widespread violence in Salvador, one the world’s most dangerous countries.” The country’s legislation, it adds, “provides the media with little protection, and officials harass and threaten journalists who try to investigate corruption or government finances.”
In a court filing, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) argues (pdf) that Duran “was arrested and is being detained by DHS in order to punish and suppress his speech as a journalist, in violation of the First, Fourth , Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.” It also asserts that Duran showed his press badge to an officer who said, “I don’t care.” Two women there also attempted to communicate that he was a member of the press, the filing states.
A petition organized by advocacy group Free Press calling for his release declares: “The unlawful arrest and detainment of Duran are an attack on our nation’s First Amendment freedoms. This crackdown is part of a national effort to silence immigrant voices speaking out against unjust policing and law enforcement.”
According to Jeremy Jong, an attorney with SPLC who now represents Duran, “ICE is targeting people who speak against them.” He told The Daily Beast, “We see cases from all over the country where activists who speak out against ICE are being arrested.”
Maru Mora Villalpando, an undocumented immigrant and immigrant rights activist, believes she’s among that group. Speaking to Democracy Now! last month, she said, “I’m not the only activist being placed in deportation proceedings, but my case is very clear. They have nothing on me. I have no criminal record. I have never been in a raid. And still ICE decided to begin deportation proceedings against me. And as they clearly marked on a document that they sent to the judge, they see me as an anti-ICE activist.”
In a sign of that trend, the Huffington Post reported late Sunday that “ICE is going after people with pettier criminal records than in recent years. Roughly one-quarter of the 143,470 migrants ICE arrested last year had no criminal convictions at all, and 11 percent had no outstanding criminal charges.” It adds, “DUI, traffic tickets, simple drug possession, and immigration violations made up nearly half the criminal convictions for unauthorized immigrants arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement last year.”
Duran, for his part, previously called out the “cruelty” of the system. In a statement(pdf) to the press read by his fiancée, Melisa Valdez, on April 16, he said, “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.”