A Spanish-language reporter who faces deportation after his arrest while covering an immigration protest in Tennessee said Tuesday he was unjustly detained and faces danger if sent back to El Salvador.
Manuel Duran spoke publicly about his case for the first time since his arrest at an April rally protesting immigration policies the day before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in downtown Memphis.
Duran is from El Salvador and he has lived in Memphis for years. He ran the Memphis Noticias online news outlet and reported on the effects of U.S. immigration policies in the Hispanic community. Duran's lawyers have said he came to the U.S. without permission in 2006 after receiving death threats related to reporting on corruption in El Salvador.
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"It's dangerous for me to return to my country," he said in Spanish during the conference call.
Duran had been critical of law enforcement in his reporting. Activists say he faced retaliation for it. Memphis police have repeatedly denied those allegations, saying officers arrested Duran after an order to clear the street was given.
Duran said he was just doing his job as a journalist when he was arrested.
"I was doing the right thing," he said.
In October, the Board of Immigration Appeals in Virginia denied an appeal in the case. Duran's lawyer, Michelle Lapointe, said he could be deported within two weeks if the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta does not agree to delay his removal and reopen his deportation case. A ruling is pending.
Lapointe, who works with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said she will ask for asylum for Duran if the court does agree to open his case because reporters are facing worsening conditions in El Salvador.
Duran was issued a deportation order in 2007 after he failed to show up for court. His lawyers have said that he did not receive notice to report to court before the deportation order was issued.
After Duran's April 3 arrest, disorderly conduct and obstruction of a highway charges were dropped. Authorities in Memphis then handed him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"We would not be in this situation if he had not been targeted for exercising his First Amendment rights reporting the news that was critical of local policies and ICE policies that harmed his community," Lapointe said.
Duran was transferred from Memphis to an ICE facility in Louisiana. Duran said he has experienced poor conditions, including bad food and dirty bathrooms with no toilet paper, in ICE facilities in Louisiana.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox denied Duran's allegations. Cox said the facility where Duran is being held in Jena, Louisiana, has been inspected by multiple groups and has passed inspection.
Duran's lawyers have sought his release from ICE custody as they fight his deportation. Duran's longtime partner, Melisa Valdez, said the past months without Duran have been "a nightmare."
She said Duran is not a criminal and is not a danger to the Memphis community.
"His arrest and detainment only show the government has displaced priorities," Valdez said during the conference call. "I find it extremely unfair that someone can be jailed indefinitely without committing a crime."