Friday, May 11, 2018

Latino journalist Manuel Duran sits in a Louisiana immigrant prison for trying to report the truth in a Trumpian world

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 and authority.

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.

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