MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Lawyers for a journalist who was arrested in Tennessee and then placed in an immigration detention facility said Monday that the government was trying to suppress his reporting and violated his rights of freedom of speech and the press.
Attorneys with the Southern Poverty Law Center have asked a federal court to release Manuel Duran Ortega, a reporter who was arrested earlier this month in Memphis during a demonstration that coincided with days of remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in that city.
Duran, 42, was working for Spanish-language media outlet Memphis Noticias and has written stories raising questions about local police and their cooperation with federal immigration officials, one of his attorneys at the SPLC said.
"He's been critical of law enforcement in his reporting and was targeted and retaliated against for that reporting," said Michelle Lapointe, senior staff attorney with SPLC.
A spokeswoman with the Memphis Police Department and a federal immigration official insisted that Duran's journalism had nothing to do with his arrest and detention. U.S. immigration officials maintain that Duran's immigration status was flagged to them only after he was arrested by local police.
"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," a statement from Bryan Cox, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said. "He has been an immigration fugitive since that time. Mr. Duran Ortega is currently in ICE custody pending removal."
Duran was lawfully arrested by officers, a Memphis Police Department spokeswoman said.
"At no time do we target individuals based on their criticism and/or opinion of the Memphis Police Department," Lt. Karen Rudolph said in an email.
Court documents allege that Duran was unlawfully arrested April 3 when he was reporting on a protest of immigration policies. Disorderly conduct and obstruction of a highway charges were dropped but the reporter was picked up by immigration agents after he was released from jail.
Duran, who is originally from El Salvador, was then taken into custody of ICE and placed in detention in a facility in Louisiana.
Duran was issued a deportation order in 2007, both ICE and his attorney say. The order to leave the country came after Duran failed to show up for court, his lawyer said. Duran maintains he never received any notice to appear before a judge, Lapointe said. She called Duran's case part of a disturbing pattern of arrests of immigrants who speak out.
Lawyers have also filed a petition to have the deportation order overturned, arguing that violence has escalated in El Salvador and reporters have been targeted, making it a dangerous place for him.
Duran says the arrest and detention have given him an opportunity to see firsthand the issues he has been reporting on and the realities immigrant families are facing.
"No one should be deprived of their freedoms just for wanting a better future for their children," a statement Duran issued from detention said. "This is a cruel system that criminalizes people who pose no danger to this country."