OXFORD, Miss. – Manuel Duran is a Memphis journalist who
covers the Latino community for Memphis
Noticias, a Spanish-language news outlet he owns. He’s also a native of El
Salvador, and that fact is a reason he’s in prison in Jena, Louisiana, one of
the nation’s worst immigrant detention facilities.
My late friend Marty Fishgold, a longtime labor writer in
New York City, liked to say that good “journalism is a subversive activity” because
it tells truth to power. Veteran Boston journalist Tom Oliphant had this to say
about it: “Good reporters are anarchists” because they question all ideologies
Those are good things, and that’s why journalism gets
special protection in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It may be the
best-known promise in that document and why the constitutions of nations as far
flung as Poland, Brazil, Egypt and Bangladesh include such language as well.
One could argue that many of those countries don’t practice
what they preach. Well, guess what, we don’t either.
The 42-year-old Duran came to Memphis after working as a
reporter in his native El Salvador, a war-and-drug-torn country whose cruelest goons
trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. He’s now facing
deportation back to that country, perhaps the equivalent of a death sentence.
Let’s consider why Duran sits in prison—Jena is one of the
“worst detention centers” in the United States for its treatment of immigrants,
according to Father Michael McAndrew, who works with immigrant communities in
Greenwood and north Mississippi.
On April 3 in downtown Memphis, police arrested Duran and
eight others who were protesting immigration policies. Police said they were
blocking a roadway and Duran refused to move as ordered. The protest also took
place without a permit, police said. Two
days later, prosecutors dropped charges against Duran. Charges against most of
the protesters are still pending.
Duran was far from a free man, however. U.S. Immigration and
Customs Enforcement officers immediately arrested him and sent him to Jena. ICE
officials said Duran missed a scheduled appearance in an immigration court in
Atlanta back in 2007 and thus had since been living in the States without legal
status. Attorneys for Duran said he received no notice to appear that day in
2007, and they have asked the Atlanta court to reopen the case.
If Barack Obama were still president, Duran might be free
since he has no criminal history other than misdemeanor driving offenses. Under
President Trump, however, none of the 11 million immigrants in this country
without full legal status is even temporarily safe from deportation.
“The actions pursued by government officials in this case
threaten core First Amendment freedoms that are essential to our democracy,”
says a federal petition by the Southern Poverty Law Center seeking Duran’s
release. Those freedoms are “the right to criticize and expose the actions of
government officials, and the rights of members of the press to write and
publish about them.”
Duran’s greatest “crime” may be that he has been critical of
the Memphis Police Department in his reporting.
For example, back in July 2017, he reported in a Facebook post
allegations that immigration enforcement officials and Memphis police had
joined in a traffic stop operation despite claims they do not work together.
Memphis police asked Duran to take down the post. His coverage also raised
questions about police handling of the case of a Latino immigrant whose body
was found in a police impound lot 49 days after he was shot during a robbery.
A long tradition exists of Latino journalists suffering
because of their commitment to truth. Perhaps the most famous Latino journalist
in U.S. media history was Ruben Salazar, a courageous reporter for the Los Angeles Times and later
Spanish-language television station KMEX in Los Angeles. After launching with
fellow journalist William Restrepo an investigation into police and sheriff’s
department brutality and criminality in early 1970, Salazar was killed later that year by a
deputy-fired tear gas projectile while covering a Chicano demonstration.
Deputies said they were answering reports of looting and being pelted by
bottles and rocks when Salazar was killed.
Some questioned whether Salazar was assassinated because of
his reportage. He has been called “la voz de La Raza”, the voice of the
people, a martyr to good journalism. A U.S. stamp bears his image.
The Duran case evokes more recent memories of what happened
in Jackson, Mississippi, to Daniela Vargas, a 22-year-old native of Argentina
who had been living in the United States since the age of 7. Despite earlier
protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, her more
recent lapsed status resulted in a March 1 arrest and federal deportation
proceedings. An SPLC petition helped win her release nine days later, but her
fate remains as uncertain as Manuel Duran’s.
A shorter version of this column appeared this week in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.