The Spanish-language journalist who was targeted and jailed for more than a year after covering a rally that protested Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local law enforcement collaboration has won his asylum case, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) said.
“The positive resolution of my case today is a triumph in the fight to defend the First Amendment,” Manuel Duran said in a statement released by the civil rights organization on Thursday.
The Memphis-based journalist had initially been detained by police in April 2018, after covering a protest over local law enforcement’s practice of turning detained immigrants over to ICE. That’s exactly what happened to him. While protest-related charges were later dropped, ICE still detained him for 15 months over a decade-old deportation order.
During that time he was jailed at Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, “routinely identified by lawyers, advocates, and detainees as one of the worst ICE facilities in the United States,” The Guardian reported in 2018. Coincidentally, the Biden administration announced just this Friday that ICE would no longer be contracting with Etowah, citing “a long history of serious deficiencies.” This is a big fucking deal.
Duran won his release from ICE detention in July 2019, but his case remained pending. His legal team fought for asylum, “arguing that conditions have worsened for journalists in El Salvador and he could be in danger if he returns,” the Associated Press said at the time, reporting the Board of Immigration Appeals had “acknowledged that conditions for reporters have changed for the worse in Duran’s home country since his initial deportation order.”
“The immigration courts don’t always do the right thing, so today’s victory was far from guaranteed,” said SPLC Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative Senior Lead Attorney Gracie Willis following news of his win. “Manuel endured so much to get to this point: an immigration detention system designed to force people to give up their cases by subjecting them to inhumane conditions, deportation attempts, and confronting repression of the press in his own hometown on Memphis.”
Media Matters reported following Duran’s initial arrest that his outlet, Memphis Noticias, had “published a number of articles critical of ICE.” The mass deportation agency has also commonly targeted immigrants critical of its draconian policy. Just this year, New Sanctuary Coalition cofounder Ravi Ragbir settled his First Amendment lawsuit against the federal government, winning three years of protection from deportation. His New Sanctuary cofounder, Jean Montrevil, also recently won three years’ relief.
In early 2017, ICE targeted Daniela Vargas, a former Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient, after she spoke at an immigration rally. “It could be retaliation,” attorney Abby Peterson told Huff Post at the time. “They had been reading about her in the news, they had seen her at this press conference… [maybe] they didn’t want to hear it anymore. Maybe I’m mistaken on that, but common sense would certainly imply that’s what happened.” But just look at the record. That hunch is right.
While Duran’s case attracted significant media attention, Willis said this isn’t the case for thousands currently in the immigration detention system, and the 1.5 million in the immigration court backlog. “Nor should it be required to win a case in an administrative agency.”
“The path to this win reminds us of the need to end immigrant detention and reimagine our entire immigration court system,” she continued. “Still, today, after four arduous years, we can finally take a deep breath, knowing Manuel is safe.” Duran said his “victory is dedicated to all the journalists being persecuted in this moment, because no journalist should have to fear to do their job. El Salvador has been characterized as a country hostile to the press, especially during the Bukele administration.”
“I am pleased Manuel Duran won his asylum case,” Rep. Steve Cohen said in response to the news. He said his office had been in contact with the journalist and government officials at the time of his arrest. “The First Amendment protects journalists and Mr. Duran was well within his rights, conducting lawful reporting when he was arrested.”
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