A Salvadoran journalist arrested in 2018 and detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for over 15 months has been granted asylum, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) announced on Thursday.
Manuel Durán, based in Memphis since fleeing El Salvador in 2006, was arrested on April 3, 2018, while covering a protest against local law enforcement’s practice of arresting suspected immigrants and handing them over to ICE.
“I escaped from El Salvador and came to the United States because of this country’s stand in defense of its First Amendment rights,” Durán told Latino Rebels on Friday. “I did not expect the United States government would show levels of corruption that reminded me of what the Salvadoran government showed and continues to show.”
“The first words that come to mind are sadness, disappointment, and outrage,” he said.
Durán, who managed a TV station in El Salvador and later launched the Spanish-language news site Memphis Noticias, had a deportation order issued against him in 2007 after failing to appear before an immigration judge when an order to appear failed to reach him.
“He went on to live with a family member and when the court attempted to send a hearing notice it was returned to the court as not deliverable,” said Gracie Willis, a senior lead attorney with the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, who handled Durán case alongside the non-profit immigration law firm Advocates for Immigrant Rights. “He never received notice of his hearing date. He didn’t know when to go to court or even that he had a hearing date.”
Durán told Latino Rebels he had been harassed by local authorities prior to his arrest in 2018.
“I had run-ins with local authorities for sharing stories about Memphis police collaborating with ICE, community complaints,” he said. “The day of my arrest, I was covering an important demonstration denouncing this collaboration and was arrested in the middle of what seemed like a well-planned scenario.
“The Multi-Agency Gang Unit went almost directly towards me as I was standing and broadcasting live across the street. Once processed with charges that were later dismissed, I ended up being immediately transferred away from my attorneys in Memphis to another state by ICE, where I lost just over 15 months of my freedom,” he said.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), whose district covers the western three-fourths of Memphis, released a statement applauding the outcome of Durán’s case.
“I am pleased Manuel Duran won his asylum case,” said Cohen. “The First Amendment protects journalists and Mr. Duran was well within his rights conducting lawful reporting when he was arrested. He obviously has a reasonable fear for his safety were he returned to his native El Salvador. I am pleased by the court’s decision and commend Mr. Duran’s commitment to the principles of a free press and to the work of the lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Advocates for Immigration Rights that led to this vindication.”
“We believe in the dignity of every person, and aim to make real the right of every person to live with self-determination,” Willis, Durán’s attorney, told Latino Rebels. “Migrants are often in precarious positions, made vulnerable to oppressive working or living conditions, and often treated as a pawn in political discussions. We are honored to be welcomed into the spaces we have been to work with immigrant communities and fight together not just to defend, but to build together.”
In a statement on Thursday, Willis pointed to the vast number of other cases currently pending in the U.S. immigration system.
“Manuel’s case is also a reminder that the vast majority of the more than 20,000 people in immigrant detention and the 1.5 million people in the immigration court backlog do not have access to this level of support, nor should it be required to win a case in an administrative agency,” she said. “The path to this win reminds us of the need to end immigrant detention and reimagine our entire immigration court system.
“Still,” she added, “today, after four arduous years, we can finally take a deep breath, knowing Manuel is safe.”
Despite his ordeal, Durán celebrated Thursday’s news as a win for press freedom.
“The positive resolution of my case today is a triumph in the fight to defend the First Amendment,” Durán said on Thursday. “This 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.”