The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has filed a habeas petition seeking the release of Memphis journalist Manuel Duran Ortega from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center on the grounds that he was arrested in retaliation for his critical reporting on local and federal immigration practices.
Duran Ortega, 42, an El Salvadoran immigrant and reporter for the Spanish-language news web site Memphis Noticias, was arrested on 3 April 2018 while covering an immigration-related demonstration in downtown Memphis. The charges were dropped two days later, but instead of releasing him from custody, Shelby County Jail officials turned Duran Ortega over to federal immigration officers, who transferred him to a detention center in Louisiana.
ICE spokesperson Bryan D. Cox said the agency had lodged a detainer against Duran Ortega, whom he described as "an unlawfully present El Salvadoran national" based upon an 11-year-old deportation order.
"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," Cox said in a prepared statement. "He has been an immigration fugitive since that time."
According to the SPLC filing, Duran Ortega never received notice of the 2007 hearing. Six days after his arrest in Memphis he filed a motion to re-open the case, temporarily halting the deportation process. The motion argues that Ortega's removal to El Salvador, where journalists regularly face threats and persecution from authorities, would place him in danger. Formerly a television reporter in his home country, Ortega originally fled to the United States in 2006 after receiving threats against his life.
The case for labeling his arrest "retaliatory" seems to be largely circumstantial, resting, for example, on the fact that no other reporters were taken into custody, that Duran Ortega's work is well known to local officials (including the top brass of the police department), and that he has published "numerous stories on controversial issues involving the Memphis Police Department and other local law enforcement":
For example, he published a story on Facebook in July 2017 identifying collaboration between the Memphis Police Department and ICE at a traffic stop. Following that publication, a Memphis police officer sent Mr. Duran Ortega a text message asking him to take down the story and meet with a senior official in the Department. The Memphis Police Department had publicly denied collaboration with ICE enforcement, and Mr. Duran Ortega’s reporting contradicted their official line.
Mr. Duran Ortega has also recently criticized DHS, including publishing an article in Memphis Noticias article regarding unjust conditions at DHS detention facilities and an article on the devastating impact of family separation caused by immigration enforcement.
Most recently, in February 2018, he did significant in-depth reporting on an incident in which the body of Latino murder victim, Bardomiano Perez Hernandez, was left in the back of a van for 49 days after it had been impounded by the MPD. This reporting included attending hearings and conducting interviews with the victim’s family.
Citing other cases such as that of Daniela Vargas, an immigrant rights activist who was detained immediately after speaking out in behalf of Dreamers at a 2017 press conference, the petition notes that Duran Ortega's imprisonment reflects a "growing pattern" of efforts to "silence and suppress the controversial speech of certain immigrants by arresting, detaining, and attempting to summarily remove them."
In a 17 April press briefing, Memphis Director of Police Michael Rallings acknowledged familiarity with Duran Ortega and his work but strenuously denied that Ortega was targeted for arrest.
"Our officers responded to an unpermitted protest, they gave lawful orders for individuals to move out of the street, they made probable cause arrests, and they acted well within their authority," Rallings said. "They certainly did not target Mr. Duran or anyone else."
However, the petitioners argue that Duran Ortega was operating fully within his constitutional rights as a reporter and, in fact, was trying to cooperate with police at the very moment he was arrested:
Mr. Duran Ortega was attempting to comply with police orders to clear the street by moving from a crosswalk area to the sidewalk but was grabbed by MPD officers and not given a chance to do so. One protester explicitly told MPD officers that Mr. Duran Ortega was following their instructions. Mr. Duran Ortega did not resist arrest. Protesters alerted MPD officers to the fact that Mr. Duran Ortega was a journalist, and he was clearly identified as a journalist.
The journalist's own live-streamed video of the incident appears to bear out that version of events (the arrest takes place at approximately the 15-minute mark):
Press organizations such as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and the NewsGuild-CWA have joined the Southern Poverty Law Center in calling for Manuel Duran Ortega's release:
“The detention of Manuel and attempt to suppress his reporting is an outrage to our public’s right to an independent and necessary press” @brandontvnews #LibertaddePrensa #MoreLatinosInNews https://t.co/mYy4mE7bLN
— NAHJ (@NAHJ) April 6, 2018
— NewsGuild (@news_guild) April 18, 2018
While his fate remains to be decided by two different judges in two different courts of law, Duran Ortega is still speaking out on behalf of immigrants from his detention cell in Jena, Louisiana, where he penned these words as part of a statement read aloud by his partner, Melisa Valdez, during a 16 April press conference:
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. I will keep taking notes about my experience and I will keep on collecting my cellmates’ stories while I’m here.