Melisa Valdez is preparing to move out of her father’s two-story apartment in Downtown Memphis, finally ready to try living on her own. Her belongings have been in storage units since last June when she was forced because of financial reasons to move out of the apartment she had shared with her partner, journalist Manuel Duran.
Duran, founder of the Spanish-language online publication Memphis Noticias, was arrested by Memphis police a year ago today while covering a protest — against local government’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in deportations. The charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway or passageway were dropped, but ICE agents were waiting when he was released from jail. Since then, the immigrant from El Salvador has been held in four ICE detention centers.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s not a coincidence that he was the only journalist arrested because there were many journalists on the road that day,” Valdez said. “Manuel was not even at the center of everything; he was kind of back, and he was singled out. I don’t know exactly why. I don’t know what kinds of questions he was asking that maybe made someone angry.”
On Monday, attorneys for Duran filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court against the City of Memphis, Shelby County and police and sheriff deputies involved in the arrest, alleging the arrest was retaliatory and should never have been executed. The attorneys, Brandon Flechas from the Stroud Law Firm and Bryce Ashby of Donati Law, are asking for compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney fees.
“The rights at issue in this case are our most basic and fundamental constitutional rights,” according to a statement released by the attorneys. “The right to be free from an arrest, unsupported by probable cause is at the very heart of the American justice system, and certainly, the right to report as a member of the free press without fear of government retaliation is critical to the functioning of our democracy. Manuel has lost a year of his life in detention as a result of an arrest that should never have happened. We look forward to the opportunity to vindicate his rights in court.”
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal filings on the case that has captured the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Latino Memphis and 10 professional journalists’ organizations that have filed briefs in support of him. Because he was working as a journalist, Duran’s arrest raises First Amendment concerns.
ICE claims Duran was detained because he failed to appear in an Atlanta immigration court in 2007. However, his SPLC lawyers insist he was never given a date to appear. Based on the Trump administration’s policy of mass deportation, ICE intends to deport him if his legal team cannot prove a basis for asylum, a possibility Valdez said she and Duran have discussed.
Duran left El Salvador in 2006 after he received death threats as a result of his reporting, which focused on corruption within the police and judicial systems.
Duran and his supporters hopes’ were raised in November when an appeals court granted him an indefinite stay of deportation days before he was to be sent back to El Salvador. However, as recently as January 2019, a judge in Louisiana denied his release on bond.
On Feb. 20, the U.S Attorney General entered a motion to remand appeal to the Board of Immigrations Appeals. A panel of judges granted the motion on March 26, meaning his appeal will once again be heard by the board.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote about Manuel Duran’s case and has been in contact with his lawyers. It submitted a letter describing risks to reporters in El Salvador on behalf of his case.
“Journalists should not be arrested for doing their work. Reporters play an essential role in our democracy by covering events of public interest. Arrests of reporters undermine the First Amendment rights of journalists, as well as the right of the public to have access to information about important topics,” said CPJ’s North America program coordinator Alexandra Ellerbeck.
“Journalists who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents may face greater repercussions if they are arrested in the course of their work, as an arrest can have implications for their immigration status or travel to the United States,” Ellerbeck said. “Journalists who are undocumented or have an outstanding deportation order could risk detention. We have also noticed that journalists of color may be more likely to be targeted at protests.”
Meanwhile, as Duran has been moved from detention center to detention center, Valdez and her mother, Patricia Frias, keep the news website going. But the financial pressure is stressful for Valdez, 30, who has to provide money for Duran’s commissary account because the food provided is so bad. She also is paying his debts.
Still, she credits Duran’s visibility as a journalist with making her survival and the strong support for his case possible.
“It would have been completely impossible if things didn’t happen the way that they happened. As soon as Manuel got arrested, Latino Memphis came in and they were like, ‘We want to represent him.’ If we had had to pay for attorneys for a year, this would have not been possible,” Valdez said.
Duran is in ‘the black hole of ICE’
Interest in the case ebbs and flows, peaking when Duran is moved to another detention center or when there is a new legal development, Valdez said. She has had emotional low points, and speaking out about him “takes its toll.”
“When he was arrested, it unbalanced me. I didn’t know where I was. I really can’t remember what happened those first few days. It’s all blurry. Now, I feel like I have more control over everything … I still break every time he moves or we get bad news about his case. But it’s not like the first day,” Valdez said.
Although they usually speak every day, when he is moved, they lose contact until Duran can be processed and receive a new pin to make calls. When they do talk, Valdez puts Duran on the speaker phone for their dog, Lucas, and watches his tail wag.
Duran is now at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Ala. The day Duran was moved to Etowah on a bus with metal seats, chained up for 10 hours and unable to use the bathroom, was their 11th anniversary, Feb. 14th.
“So we’re going to have to rethink that,” Valdez said, referring to celebrating a new date as their anniversary.
Etowah is called “the black hole of ICE,” she said. In addition to the famously poor conditions, it is reserved for those being held long-term who are still fighting their cases.
Gracie Willis, staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said ICE has a pattern of moving people due to what they say are “bed space concerns” and creating poor conditions in what she believes is an attempt to make detainees drop their cases and choose deportation. Two days after the Shelby County jail gave custody of Duran to ICE, he was moved to La Salle in Jena, La. He was then moved to Pine Prairie and Alexandria Staging Center, both also in Louisiana, then Etowah in Alabama.
“At Etowah, there are many complaints of lack of medical care and terrible food, which does seem to comport with the practice of attempting to dissuade people to seek relief,” Willis said.
“What seems clear from the conditions is that they are horrific enough that they hope people give up. That seems in line with this administration’s policy of deterrence.”
Valdez believes Duran’s reputation as a journalist may contribute to efforts to coerce him. After MLK50: Justice Through Journalism reached out to ICE’s public relations officer, Bryan Cox, and sent a letter to Duran, Valdez said Duran was interrogated about his work as a journalist in Memphis.
“Manuel had the feeling that they’re trying to say, ‘OK, we have to keep this guy in check and not talk.’ So, we are waiting to see what happens. And we know it was because they got your letter,” Valdez said.
ICE did not respond to a request for an interview.
ICE could release Duran at any time, but won’t
According to Willis, since Duran was turned over to ICE on April 5, 2018, they have had discretion to release him at any time, but have refused to do so, despite many requests by the SPLC.
“We continue to hope that ICE will make the decision to release him, but are not counting on it. It is clear that their position is that he should be detained, despite no criminal record and all assurances of showing up for check-ins and hearings,” Willis said.
“Right now with his appeal, the motion is reopened in the Board of Immigration Appeals. We hope that the board will take the time to do a thorough review as directed by the 11th Circuit. We hope that they’re going to review the case with the eye toward the extensive evidence we filed that he should have the opportunity to seek asylum.”
Valdez hopes Duran does not spend another Christmas in jail. But she and Duran, she said, often talk about her worst fear: that he is deported to El Salvador.
Supporters manage a website that posts updates and lobbies for his release, freemanuelduran.org. On Wednesday at 6 p.m., a vigil to mark the one-year anniversary of his arrest will take place at El Mercadito de Memphis, 3766 Ridgeway Road.
Andrea Morales contributed to this story.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.