A Tennessee-based journalist who was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after being arrested while covering a protest won temporary relief from deportation through the end of the month. But Manuel Duran, who was arrested in April and remains in ICE custody while a court reviews an appeal in his case, believes he was targeted because of his coverage of law enforcement’s collaboration with ICE in Memphis’s Latino community. He and his supporters say his case is emblematic of a nationwide trend of officials cracking down on journalists and activists who are critical of immigration enforcement policies.
Over the last year, a handful of activists from New York to Washington state have found themselves in the crosshairs of ICE. In some cases, like Duran’s, they’d had little to no contact with the agency for years, then found themselves facing deportation shortly after vocalizing criticism of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant crackdown.
Duran’s case also highlights the controversial relationship between ICE and local law enforcement, and the ways in which ICE can call on local police to aid immigration enforcement efforts even in the absence of formal partnerships. While the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office that detained him claims not to collaborate with ICE, Duran was transferred to immigration custody in response to a “detainer” request by the agency — a controversial policy Duran himself had reported on.
The Shelby County Sheriff’s Department did not answer The Intercept’s questions about its cooperation with ICE detainers, referring instead to a statement released at the time of Duran’s arrest. “By State law, whenever a person is booked into a jail, the person is asked about the country of birth and citizenship,” the statement said. “Information must be provided to ICE if the jailer cannot determine the person’s citizenship status or if the person appears to be in violation of the Immigration and Naturalization act.”
Bryan Cox, a spokesperson for ICE, did not answer a question about allegations that the agency is retaliating against activists and critical journalists. With regard to Duran, he said, “Claims his arrest was retaliatory in nature are patently false. Hyperbole aside, the actual facts of this case are not in dispute. He was criminally arrested by local police, he is in the U.S. in violation of federal law, and he is subject to an outstanding judicial order of removal issued by a federal immigration judge.”
But Duran and his supporters have little doubt that he was singled out because of his work.
“Manuel’s case is part of a disturbing pattern of ICE retaliating against those who speak out about its policies and practices,” said Michelle LaPointe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, which is representing Duran, on a recent call with reporters. “Many other noncitizens across the country have experienced retaliation from the government for exercising their First Amendment rights. If the government feels free to treat noncitizens like this, the constitutional rights of all us are at risk.”
Duran was arrested on April 3 in Memphis, while covering a protest to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. in that city. Local activists had staged a demonstration the day before the anniversary, role-playing as immigration detainees and an ICE guard holding them in chains, to call out local police for its collaboration with immigration enforcement and private investment in the detention industry.
Video of the incident taken by citizen journalist Gary Moore shows officers closing in on peaceful demonstrators. While several reporters and photographers were covering the protest, including some who were standing on the street, Duran, who was wearing a press badge, was the only reporter who was arrested, along with several activists. In Duran’s own livestream of the protest, one officer can be heard saying, “Get him, guys,” and pointing in Duran’s direction, right before they grab him and his camera lowers to the ground. As officers dragged Duran away, two activists wearing blue ICE inmate uniforms tried to shield him. One, Yuleiny Escobar, repeatedly screamed at the officers, “He’s a reporter,” before being arrested herself.
“I am saying very loud and clear, he’s a reporter, he’s a reporter,” Escobar told The Intercept in a recent interview. “And fine, it was a lot of people getting arrested, and commotion, but once you have him all cornered up, you should have seen he had a press badge.”
Photos: Andrea Morales
Escobar, who knew Duran’s work for Memphis Noticias, the Spanish-language news site he founded, said that police had actually reached out and asked to meet with him after he had published a series of articles detailing their apparent collaboration with ICE. “They knew exactly who he was,” said Escobar.
Duran’s detention has left a hole in the coverage of Memphis’s Latino and immigrant communities, Escobar added. While Duran’s partner, Melisa Valdes, has tried to keep the site alive, she does so while working another job and fighting for his release. “It’s not the same. That’s what Manuel did. He was manager, producer, reporter, everything,” said Escobar. “Now that he’s gone, we have nobody reporting on these cases and the community is not informed.”
Duran founded Memphis Noticias after settling in Tennessee in 2006. He had been an investigative reporter in his native El Salvador, writing about corruption in law enforcement and the judiciary, but fled after his reporting earned him death threats. “From the moment that I left my country, it was because I was being persecuted in response to my work. I left my country to the United States thinking this is the right country to keep working as a journalist,” Duran said in Spanish during a recent call with reporters. “Because this country respects the rights of information and of a free press. I was going to feel safe here.”
In Memphis, Duran returned to investigative journalism, this time focusing on immigration issues and relations between law enforcement and the city’s Latino community. In the months before his arrest and detention, he reported on the stories of people who were arrested by police and later ended up in immigration detention, despite Memphis officials repeatedly saying that the city was not cooperating with ICE. Police asked Duran to take down that story, according to Escobar.
Duran also reported on the mishandling by police of a murder investigation and on a surge of workplace raids in Tennessee and across the country. “He was there, he was reporting, he was informing,” said Escobar. “We strongly believe that he was targeted because he was informing the community.”
“I was pulled away from my community and the community I love serving,” said Duran. “Because I was doing my job, that’s the reason why I’m going through this. I was doing the right thing.” In detention, Duran never stopped reporting. He and others were treated like criminals, he said on the call with journalists, and in the months he spent at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center, he collected enough stories of injustice and abuse inflicted on detainees to one day write a book about them. “I hope that one day I have the chance to write these stories and let you know about them.”
After his arrest, Duran was taken to the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. That night, Valdez, his partner, posted his $100 bond, but Duran was not released. According to court documents, a clerk later brought him documents in Spanish that said the Department of Homeland Security wanted more information about him, and documents in English that he did not understand and refused to sign. Spencer Kaaz, who was also arrested at the protest, said he saw the paper and remembers it being an ICE detainer — a request that local authorities provide 48-hour notice before releasing from their custody a person suspected of being in violation of immigration laws. At the time, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office denied that a detainer had been issued. In the statement it provided to The Intercept, the sheriff’s office claimed that Duran “declined to accept” his bond and therefore was not released.
On April 5, Duran went to court and his case was dismissed, but instead of being released, he was taken back to his jail cell. Within two hours, Shelby County jail authorities handed him over to ICE, who shipped him off to Louisiana that same day. For the duration of the eight-hour bus ride, Duran was shackled by his wrists, ankles, and waist.
“The Shelby County Sheriff’s Department claimed that he was not held on a detainer. Now we have a record that shows that there was a detainer lodged for him by ICE,” said LaPointe, Duran’s lawyer at the SPLC. She added that sources in Memphis reported that ICE was in the courtroom when Duran’s charges were dropped. “There’s obviously some level of coordination going on between the two entities,” she said.
Cox, the ICE spokesperson, confirmed to The Intercept that ICE lodged a detainer request with Shelby County, adding that Duran has “been in the country as an immigration fugitive for more than 10 years.” He did not respond to a question about whether ICE was present during Duran’s criminal court proceedings. The sheriff’s office confirmed that ICE was there.
Duran fled his native El Salvador 12 years ago after facing death threats for his work as a journalist. He was apprehended and then released by Customs and Border Protection officers upon his entry into the United States. In early 2007, Duran was ordered removed in absentia, but he says he never received proper notice of his immigration court hearing.
Four days after he was detained by ICE, Duran filed a motion to reopen his January 2007 removal order in the Atlanta Immigration Court. Duran argued that violence against journalists in El Salvador had increased since he left, so he should be allowed to apply for asylum.
On April 24, a court denied Duran’s motion to reopen his 2007 case, and his lawyers again appealed. “Cases like Mr. Duran Ortega’s implicate not only his individual rights, but the basic First Amendment freedoms that apply to every person in this country regardless of their immigration status,” his lawyers wrote in the appeal. “His removal would chill other immigrant journalists from exercising their rights.”
On May 29, the Board of Immigrant Appeals issued a stay of removal, meaning that ICE could not deport Duran so long as his case was pending. The BIA rejected Duran’s request in October and dissolved the stay of removal, upholding the findings of the immigration court. Duran’s case is now before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has said that he cannot be deported before November 30.
“We’re encouraged that the 11th Circuit seems to want to take the time to at least consider arguments carefully about the harm that Manuel would face if he’s deported, and also the First Amendment concerns that his case raises,” LaPointe said in an interview the day after the court’s ruling. “It’s obviously a reprieve, so we still have a lot of hurdles to go through, but I think that we’re cautiously encouraged.”
A number of press freedom groups, including the Freedom of the Press Foundation, have gotten involved in Duran’s case. In August, 11 press freedom groups filed an amicus brief in Duran’s support, arguing that his arrest and detention were carried out “as a means to silence him from speaking further.”
“It is certainly a trend and a pattern,” said Andrew Free, a Tennessee-based immigration attorney who has represented individuals facing deportation across the country. “And it has the potential to stifle dissent and has the potential to kill speech, and to make it so that those who would have criticized the abuses that have been documented, and that are happening, might be less likely to do so.”
Perhaps the most prominent case of apparent retaliation is that of Ravi Ragbir, a leader in New York’s immigrants’ rights movement whose January arrest by ICE garnered national coverage. Ragbir had been under an order of removal for 11 years, but ICE largely ignored him until his organizing at the New Sanctuary Coalition helped generate public criticism of the agency. Ragbir is, like Duran, fighting his deportation on First Amendment grounds.
Just last month, three groups based in Washington state — Northwest Detention Center Resistance, Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites, and the Detention Watch Network — filed a lawsuit accusing ICE of systematically surveilling, detaining, and deporting “immigrant activists who speak out about immigration policies and practices.”
One of those named in the lawsuit is Maru Mora-Villalpando, an activist with the Detention Watch Network. “Journalism has been a tool to expose what’s happening, and I think especially since the Trump administration came into office, there’s been … an incredibly high level of engagement from the media and from investigative journalists on what is really happening with the administration,” said Silky Shah, the group’s executive director.
Though the volume of apparently retaliatory immigration arrests has increased since Donald Trump took office, a recent lawsuit suggests that those actions were also taking place under the Obama administration. On November 14, the Vermont-based group Migrant Justice sued DHS, ICE, and the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles, alleging that those agencies have been targeting and retaliating against activists since at least 2014.
In 2013, Migrant Justice worked to pass Vermont’s Driver Privilege Card, allowing state residents to obtain driving privileges, regardless of immigration status. “Documents obtained through public record requests show that when the plaintiffs submitted their DPC applications, the DMV sent their personal information directly to ICE, which compiled dossiers on Migrant Justice leaders, including their social media pages and media appearances,” the plaintiffs wrote in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “The records show DMV workers shared the plaintiffs’ information with ICE for discriminatory purposes, out of racial and anti-immigrant animus.”
The plaintiffs in that case are making three First Amendment arguments, explained Angelo Guisado, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who is involved with the lawsuit. The first is based on free expression, namely that the individual plaintiffs have suffered harm for their relation to Migrant Justice. The second is based on free speech and the freedom to petition the government. By surveilling and harassing individual activists, the plaintiffs argue, the government has interfered with their rights to express themselves and to organize. The third argument is about the government’s alleged retaliation against the Migrant Justice activists for exercising their rights to free speech.
“The federal government and its law enforcement arms have been targeting and retaliating against activists of color, progressive voices, since pretty much forever,” Guisado said. “When I first got involved, it became very clear to me that not only are ICE — and, at certain points, CBP and the state DMV — interested in retaliating against them because of their anti-Latino and anti-immigrant animus, but that it’s a labor organizing advocacy collective made it particularly clear that they were going to face retaliation.”
Before Duran’s arrest, Memphis officials had insisted that the city’s law enforcement did not collaborate with ICE — a claim Duran’s own reporting called into question. While the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office does not formally partner with ICE under the widely criticized 287(g) program — which deputizes local law enforcement officers to ask people booked into local custody about their immigration status and hold undocumented individuals for ICE — Duran was transferred to ICE custody in response to a detainer request.
In fact, even in the absence of formal cooperation, ICE often asks local law enforcement to place someone on an “immigration hold,” detaining them for 48 hours after their release date to give ICE time to decide whether to take them into federal custody. Detainers are administrative warrants, not judicial ones, but there is much misinformation around them, and law enforcement officers don’t always understand that they are not required to honor them.
“We knew that if he was placed in jail, there was a possibility that ICE could issue a detainer for him, so we launched a campaign to let the Shelby County sheriff know that he did not have to honor that detainer,” Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, policy director at the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, told The Intercept. “Unfortunately the sheriff didn’t listen.”
Months after Duran’s arrest, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office stopped honoring ICE’s detainers, but a new state law slated to go into effect in January will require local law enforcement across Tennessee to honor such detainers. The Anti-Sanctuary bill, as the legislation is known, was approved by the state’s legislature last April, despite warnings by some sheriffs that detainers conflicted with individuals’ Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Critics have also long argued that collaborating with ICE both puts an enormous drain on local law enforcement resources and severely damages their relationship with the communities they serve. In Tennessee, that comes at a time when a wave of ICE raids has disseminated panic in many immigrant communities.
“Collaboration is not in their interest,” said Sherman-Nikolaus, referring to local law enforcement. “It risks public safety, because communities are less likely to participate as victims or witnesses when they are afraid of local law enforcement.”