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Activists Demand Release of Manuel Duran, Prominent Latino Journalist in Memphis Jailed by ICE

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Immigrants rights activists are demanding the release of Manuel Duran, a prominent Latino journalist in Memphis who has been in ICE custody since early April. Duran was detained by immigration officials after he was arrested while covering a protest against immigrant detention outside a county jail. Duran, who was born in El Salvador, is a well-known reporter on Spanish radio stations in Memphis. He also runs the online site Memphis Noticias. Duran issued a statement while detained about the conditions in the LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana, where he is being held. He writes, “Through this experience I have learned first hand details about the treatment our immigrants receive before they are deported. How they keep the lights on day and night and you have to sleep with a towel over your eyes. How they make you lie in bed for 45 minutes, in what seems to be at random after roll calling, and you cannot use the phone or the bathroom during that time.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the story of a prominent Latino journalist in Memphis detained by immigration officials after he was arrested while covering a protest against immigrant detention outside a county jail. Manuel Duran, who was born in El Salvador, is a well-known reporter on Spanish radio stations in Memphis. He also runs the online site Memphis Noticias. This is Duran beginning his coverage of the protest on April 3rd.

MANUEL DURAN: [translated] This protest is going to be held in front of 201 Poplar. And let me tell you what is the purpose of this demonstration. As you can see, everything is getting ready here. This protest is happening because of different reasons. One of them is that, according to the demonstrators and the organizations participating in this march, the reason for this protest is that due process is not being respected.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Manuel Duran reporting on Facebook Live. About 15 minutes later, as he and other journalists covered demonstrators crossing a street bound together in chains, police stepped in to arrest an activist. Several officers then turned to Duran himself and ordered him to get out of the street. This is footage from Duran’s phone.

POLICE OFFICER: Get out the street.

MANUEL DURAN Where are we going?

POLICE OFFICER: I don’t care. Get on the sidewalk. Get on the sidewalk! Get him, guys.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s one officer saying, quote, “Get him, guys,” before Duran’s phone falls to the ground. This confrontation between police and activists escalates, with two women trying to protect Duran, shouting, “He’s a reporter!” This is footage from another camera.

POLICE OFFICER: Back up. Back up.

WOMAN: He’s a reporter. He’s a reporter. He’s a reporter!

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Duran was arrested and held in Shelby County Jail. On April 5th, the state dropped criminal charges against him, but he was then detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. He was quickly transferred to the LaSalle Detention Center, six hours from Memphis, in Jena, Louisiana. Local immigrant groups are calling for his release.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by three guests. In Memphis, Tennessee, Melisa Valdez is with us, Manuel Duran’s longtime partner; Mauricio Calvo, executive director of Latino Memphis, an immigrants’ rights group. And Kristi Graunke, senior attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, joining us from Raleigh, North Carolina, one of Manuel Duran’s lawyers.

Let’s begin with Kristi Graunke, his lawyer. What’s happened right now? Where is he? On what grounds did they arrest him and then hand him over to ICE?

KRISTI GRAUNKE: Well, he’s now in LaSalle detention facility in Jena, Louisiana. And the grounds he was arrested, he was alleged to be blocking a roadway in Memphis and to be engaging in disorderly conduct. And, of course, those charges were dropped, but, unfortunately, he was turned over almost immediately, in very rapid fashion, to ICE and taken immediately to LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana, where he is right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mauricio Calvo, could you talk about the importance—his importance in Memphis to the Latino community there in Memphis and what his role has been over the years?

MAURICIO CALVO: Absolutely. I mean, we believe every person is important. Manuel is not the first one, the only one or the last one who will be suffering of the consequences of the Trump deportation machine. But particularly Manuel, he played a very important role. He was a journalist for a community that often doesn’t have somebody who sounds like them or looks like them or talks like them on the media. So Manuel played a very important role, reporting everything from government issues to cultural issues. He was really and truly the voice of the Latino community in Memphis.

AMY GOODMAN: Melisa Valdez, I know this is extremely hard for you, as your partner is now in jail in Jena, Louisiana. Can you talk about Manuel’s life and also his passion of journalism in Memphis and covering particularly these kinds of protests?

MELISA VALDEZ: Yes. He was very passionate about his work. He’s been doing journalism for a very long time, almost since he was a kid back in El Salvador, and then he brought it all the way to the U.S. when he immigrated here. So, he was very passionate. He would get up in the morning and go out and try to speak—people would reach out to him and say, “OK, look, this happened to me. I need you—I need you to try to investigate. Ask the police why is this happening.” So he would go out and speak to the families and then bring the news to everybody else. He has a very large audience on social media and also on a personal level.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you seen him in jail?

MELISA VALDEZ: I have, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are the conditions there?

MELISA VALDEZ: Well, he looks—to be honest with you, he looks miserable. He’s never been locked up like this, for this amount of time. So, he’s just trying to stay strong, I guess. He knows me. He wants me to stay strong, so he’s trying to fake it. Sometimes he fails, and I can see him take a breath and try to calm down while he’s inside. And actually, last time I saw him, it was on Monday morning. And he almost begged me not to leave. I mean, he’s like, “I know you need to take a rest, but when are you coming back?” And I was like, “I’ll be back soon. Don’t worry about it.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Kristi Graunke, could you talk a little bit about Manuel’s legal status in terms of immigration? When did he come to the country? Was he originally here legally and then fell into a status that was not legal?

KRISTI GRAUNKE: So, he came to the country in 2006 and, shortly after arriving, was presented with papers by immigration authorities alleging that he was not in the country lawfully. He was then subsequently removed, what we call, in absentia, which means that there was an immigration hearing held, he did not attend. He did not get proper notice of that hearing, and so that in the absence of him actually being able to present arguments as to why he might be entitled to immigration relief, he was summarily ordered deported. And that order has been on the books since 2007.

So what we’re trying to do right now is reopen that case. And, you know, Manuel’s story is incredibly important on an individual level, but it also highlights some serious problems with due process in our immigration system. An extraordinarily high percentage of immigration orders are these in absentia orders, which are entered summarily. If an immigrant fails to show up at simply one hearing to present their arguments, they can be ordered removed in absentia. And that’s what happened to him. So we’re trying to reopen that and hopefully have an opportunity to present arguments that he faces danger, were he to be removed to El Salvador. As a journalist, he would face great danger, particularly practicing the type of journalism that he practices.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your petition lays out certain First Amendment protections for him, as well, because of his journalism here?

KRISTI GRAUNKE: That’s right. So we’re proceeding on two legal tracks. One is trying to reopen his immigration case and get him the fair hearing that he never got in front of an immigration judge, and an opportunity, a chance to present his arguments as to why he has—he’s entitled to immigration relief.

The other petition that we filed is with federal court in the Western District of Louisiana, which is the area that Jena, the LaSalle detention facility, is located. And we’re contending that his continued detention violates the First Amendment and the Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution, because his arrest was clearly without probable cause and without a warrant, and it was also retaliatory. This is a man who was very prominent in the press, in the local community, speaking out against the Memphis Police Department and ICE, and particularly the collaboration between the two. So, it’s notable that he was the only journalist arrested at that protest. He was arrested when he was trying to comply with police orders, arrested on false charges. Those charges were dropped. And then he’s rapidly turned over to ICE and taken to Louisiana, away from his community and away from the lawyers that he had at that point who were in Memphis. So that’s very—those are very striking facts, and we’re arguing that his detention is unlawful and unconstitutional on those grounds.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from a statement that Manuel Duran released last week from ICE detention. He writes, “Through this experience I have learned first hand details about the treatment our immigrants receive before they are deported. How they keep the lights on day and night and you have to sleep with a towel over your eyes. How they make you lie in bed for 45 minutes, in what seems to be at random, after roll calling and you cannot use the phone or the bathroom during that time. How they would not let you know your attorney is on the phone. How you get paid dimes for work and you are on your own if you have no one outside adding funds to your commissary. How the visitation hours and your recreation hours happen at the time so you have to choose between seeing your family and getting some air. How the phones in the visitation room do not work and you have to scream
through the soundproof windows.”

And then I want to read ICE’s statement, ICE officials issuing this statement about Manuel Duran’s case, saying, “Mr. Duran-Ortega was ordered removed from the United States by a federal immigration judge in January 2007 after failing to appear for his scheduled court date. He has been an immigration fugitive since that time. Mr. Duran-Ortega is currently in ICE custody pending removal.”

He’s been a fugitive since that time. I wanted to ask Mauricio Calvo about his relationship with the public officials, the police in the community. He is a well-known reporter in Memphis, hardly a fugitive, hardly hidden away.

MAURICIO CALVO: I think, obviously, that’s the wrong adjective, to call somebody a fugitive. I mean, one thing that people often make mistakes is, they need to understand that the immigration law is not criminal law. I mean, if Manuel had been a fugitive, he had been at the office of many officials, and he would have been arrested before. I mean, this is absolutely false. Obviously, this was politically motivated. As soon as immigration saw the opportunity to go after him, they are going after him, and they want to make a case. And we’re going to make a case that we’re not going to let ICE or anybody else just walk over our constitutional rights of people. And that’s why we partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and we are really working to make sure that every American’s and every aspiring American rights are protected by the same rules.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Melisa, I wanted to ask you: In your private discussions and talks with Manuel, did you ever discuss the issue of the more public he was, given the fact that he had a deportation order, that he might be picked up? Because, obviously, he felt that it was more important to report the news than to worry about his personal safety.

MELISA VALDEZ: Yeah. I mean, being an immigrant here in the U.S., that’s something you think about every—on every—you know, any given day. So, we knew it was a risk. He took it. He loved his work more. And so, but yeah, I mean, it’s definitely on our minds at all times that deportation is a possibility. And, you know, it’s not just him. It’s everybody. It’s everybody I know. I know a lot of people who are in the same situation. So, really, yeah, it was on our mind.

AMY GOODMAN: Mauricio, what is the relationship between the Latino immigrant community in Memphis and the police?

MAURICIO CALVO: For the most part, Memphis is a very welcoming community. And the police, even though this was clearly a mistake, for the most part, they have tried to make ties with the community. In fact, Manuel has been in conversations with the police director and with other officials on how to stretch those relationships.

I mean, my concern here is, you know, local municipalities and the states cannot fix the immigration problem by themselves, but they can certainly make it worse. And this is a perfect example of how they can make it worse. It was an unfortunate chain of events, and everything starts from a state law that mandates that the sheriff will hold people for ICE.

And again, this is one of those issues that makes no sense, this jurisdiction—crossing over jurisdictions. Why is a local sheriff having to enforce immigration law? For some viewers or for some listeners who may say, “Well, because that’s the law,” and it absolutely is not. I mean, you would not think that a police officer will pull you over and ask you a question about your tax return, because the IRS law is enforced by the IRS, not by your local police department. Why? Because local police departments need and want to have reasonable relationships with all their citizens, first, because they have the duty to protect them, but also because if they ever become victims, they want to have the freedom and the certainty that they can report a crime without fear of deportation or a relationship with ICE.

So, for the most part, Memphis has been a very welcoming community. Again, this is an example of something that slipped through the cracks and that we all are going to have to be working to rebuild the trust between law enforcement and the local community.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you all for being with us, Mauricio Calvo, executive director of Latino Memphis; Melisa Valdez, Manuel Duran’s partner; and Kristi Graunke, lawyer representing Manuel Duran, senior attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is accepting applications for our paid year-long social media fellowship. Also, I’ll be speaking today in Teaneck, New Jersey at noon at the Puffin Cultural Forum. And Juan will be speaking Friday night at Columbia University.

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