Springville, ALABAMA — The saga of Manuel Duran finally saw some light today when the Memphis journalist walked out of an Etowah County Detention Center into the Alabama sun to come back home to Memphis, his family, friends and life’s vocation.
“Today things moved quickly,” Duran said over a meal with friends and supporters. “I asked the guards how it could be after 465 days this is moving so fast? They didn’t know. The lawyers were surprised, too. I can’t not give it up to God.”
As the Trump administration’s controversial immigration raids and mass deportation push plays out nationally, splitting families and exposing immigrant children to filthy, dangerous detention conditions, according to media reports, Duran is now out on bond while his lawyers at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) pursue his immigration asylum case.
Detained since April 3, 2018, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave Duran’s case a boost earlier this year when judges sent his case back to the Board of Immigration to seriously consider how dangerous it is to be a journalist in his home country of El Salvador. On Tuesday, the court ordered his case reopened.
Now, Duran waits to see if he will get a trial to hear his asylum claim. There’s no clear timeline on that.
“Melisa would tell me, ‘I can’t go on, this is too much,” Duran said about his fiancee, Melisa Valdez, as he endured the conditions in four detention centers, including Etowah. “I told her, ‘The sun will come out soon; it’s in God’s hands.’”
Duran left El Salvador in 2006 after having his life threatened as a result of his reporting on police and judicial corruption. Memphis police arrested Duran, founder of the Spanish-language online publication Memphis Noticias, while covering a protest against local government’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in deportations. It was the day before Memphis commemorated 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Organized by Communidades Unidas en Una Voz, the chain-gang demonstration was street theater to call attention to the uptick in ICE raids and arrests of undocumented migrants in the area. C.U.U.V. organizer Yuleiny Escobar led a makeshift chain gang of demonstrators, some wearing prison-style garments, through a pedestrian crosswalk on Poplar. The chain gang shuffled behind Bill Stegall, who was dressed as an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.
Duran’s attorneys argued that immigration officials cherry-picked information to justify deporting Duran and outlined what they considered numerous errors in the board’s quest to send him back to El Salvador.
For one, Board of Immigration officials downplayed the conditions in El Salvador and the danger of practicing journalism there. For example Duran’s petition cited reports noting “’eight instances of aggression against journalists’ in 2013, compared with 28 in 2014, an assassination and death threats in 2015.” Freedom of information in El Salvador has sufferance since President Sánchez Cerén was elected in 2014, the petition noted.
ICE claimed 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 intended to deport him if his legal team could not prove a basis for asylum.
“We know that you illegally hold people for more than 48 hours,” Escobar shouted in the direction of the justice center. “We know that you hold them until ICE can come and get them!”
All those arrested outside the county justice center, except Duran, were quickly released on bond.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has been in contact with Duran’s lawyers: “Journalists should not be arrested for doing their work,” said CPJ’s North America program coordinator Alexandra Ellerbeck.
Other press freedom advocates have rallied to Duran’s cause. They include: American Society of News Editors, Associated Press Media Editors, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, National Hispanic Media Coalition, PEN America, and Reporters Without Borders.
Duran “should never have been detained in the first place, so we are overjoyed to hear that he has finally been released on bond,” James Tager, free expression policy and research deputy director at PEN America said in a statement. He “would never have been in this position if it weren’t for the fact that he was unjustly arrested while doing his job as a journalist.”
Tager said Duran is still at risk of retaliation by virtue of being a journalist if he is deported to El Salvador: “For these reasons … we continue our call that deportation proceedings against him be cancelled completely.”
Duran has received additional legal help from Latino Memphis and Adelante Alabama Worker Center.
Family and friends bolstered Duran
On Thursday morning, Valdez, sat in a white SUV holding her cell phone as he called in. Still in detention, Duran was excited and thankful, saying he couldn’t wait to see her. When the call was over, Valdez held the phone, as if he might still be there. Refusing to hang up has been a pattern because she said she worried that Duran would come back to the phone with more to say.
The couple never knew if their last call was the last call.
Duran’s news outlet, Memphis Noticias, has managed to stay alive with help from Valdez and her mother, Patricia Frias. The financial pressure maintaining the site, managing his debts, putting money in his commissary account and simply keeping track Duran who has been moved several times has been daunting.
The detention center in Jena, Louisiana, allowed Valdez, and her father and brother to see him. But when Duran was moved to Etowah this year, seeing him became a demoralizing experience because the center only allows visitors to view detainees on a television screen.
Gracie Willis, an SPLC attorney has said: “Manuel’s case undeniably highlights an immigration system designed to punish and discourage immigrants seeking relief under the law. Manuel is just one of thousands of immigrants who have contributed extensively to their communities in the United States only to find themselves abruptly imprisoned with little recourse.”
Duran was full — and thankful: “The lawyers got me to this change at a very high level. There is no price for this kind of help. I’m so grateful.”
J. Dylan Sandifer and Mac Watts contributed to this report.
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, the Southern Documentary Project and Community Change.