Legal battle ramps up with journalist still in ICE custody

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Latino Memphis and Southern Poverty Law Center are working to free a journalist being held by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

SPLC filed a petition in federal court for the release of Manuel Duran.

Duran was one of nine people arrested April 3 while protesting against immigration detention, among other things.

Duran and others were charge with disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway.

Charges were dropped against Duran, but he remains in ICE custody.

Duran's attorney Anne Schiller said ICE officials took him away as soon as his case was dismissed in court. She fears Duran will be deported.

SPLC said Duran was unlawfully arrested and detained.

"Manuel Duran is a journalist who was simply doing his job—reporting on the Memphis Police and ICE—when he was unlawfully arrested and summarily sent to a remote ICE detention center in retaliation for him exposing the truth," said Michelle Lapointe, acting deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "We are seeking Mr. Duran's immediate release from detention. His unlawful arrest and unconstitutional detention only serve to silence free speech and press, and create more fear and mistrust of law enforcement in immigrant communities."

ICE officials said Duran was ordered by a judge to be deported in 2007 after he failed to appear in court. They issued the following statement:

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement lodged an immigration detainer against Manuel Duran-Ortega, an unlawfully present El Salvadoran national, April 3, with Shelby County authorities after he was arrested by local police on criminal charges there. 

He was subsequently taken into ICE immigration custody April 5 after his release from Shelby County criminal custody.  

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.

Duran is a reporter for Spanish-language Memphis Noticias. SPLC believes he may have been targeted for his past criticism of ICE in his reporting.

Duran has been transported to LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana.

Monday, Duran released a statement, saying in part:

I cannot thank you enough for the support I have received since the moment of my arrest and subsequent transfer and incarceration in Louisiana. This episode in my life has not been easy, but I have taken it as an opportunity to learn first hand the drama and reality that our families are living when they are arrested by immigration and then deported...

To read a copy of Duran's complete statement, click here.

Latino Memphis and the Southern Poverty Law Center held a news conference Monday, announcing a new fight to free Manuel Duran.

Duran's attorneys said they have filed petitions, claiming Duran's civil rights were violated.

"Manuel's unlawful arrest and his unconstitutional detention not only harmed him and his family but government actions like this make our community unsafe," LaPointe said.

Duran, who has lived in Memphis without citizenship for several years, was turned over by Shelby County Sheriff's Office to Immigration and Customs Enforcement after he showed up in a federal database.

He's currently being held in Louisiana at an ICE facility.

His girlfriend Melisa Valdez said she's been visiting Duran while he's in custody.

"He's angry but other than that he seems healthy," Valdez said. "They don't eat very well."

ICE officials said Duran has been on the run since 2007 after "failing to appear for his scheduled court date. He has been an immigration fugitive since that time."

However, Duran's girlfriend claims he never received a court summons and has been a visible member of the media in Memphis.

"He was not hiding," Valdez said. "He's been a reporter, he's been on camera since he came to the U.S."

Duran's attorneys are fighting to make sure he has his day in court before facing deportation back to El Salvador.

Meanwhile, those supporting Duran in Memphis said his case highlights the need for an improved relationship between immigrants and local law enforcement.

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