Attorney Gracie Willis of the Southern Poverty Law Center speaks on behalf of her client, Manuel Duran. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

A Wednesday morning press conference at the Latino Memphis office gave local media a first-hand look at Manuel Duran, the Latin journalist who was released on Thursday from an immigration detention center in Alabama.

Duran had been detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for 15 months. He addressed the press conference in Spanish, and was immediately followed by a translator who read his remarks in English.

“I always wanted to tell the news, not become the news,” Duran said in his translated remarks. “But sometimes God allows things to happen so we can see things we did not see before.

“Under the Trump administration, the press is not free,” Duran added. “I got to see hundreds of other detainees suffering the pain of family separation. ICE is punishing people with mass incarceration which is unnecessary and inhumane.”

The New Tri-State Defender attempted to get comments from the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services in Memphis and Nashville as well as Memphis Immigration Court and the Department of Human Services Detention and Removal Operations. All attempts were unsuccessful at TSD press time. Recordings answered all calls to these offices and no one who picked up calls would comment on detention numbers or policies being enforced locally.

Duran, who is the online publisher of Memphis Noticias, a Spanish-language news outlet, was detained on April 3, 2018, while covering a local rally protesting Memphis Police’s cooperation with immigration officials. At the time, MPD would hold suspected undocumented immigrants for 48 hours and turn them over to ICE officers.

Duran, a native of El Salvador, was surrendered to ICE by MPD under that very policy. He believes he was targeted that day because he is a journalist. His press credentials were clearly visible, he said.

Original charges of obstructing traffic and disturbing the peace were dropped days later, but a pending deportation order issued in 2007 led to his extended imprisonment.

Duran cited what he called “unnecessary cruelty to detainees for no reason.”

“In the summer, the heater was turned on for no reason, and there were very high temperatures,” he said. “Twice, there was no use of phones for several days, and we never knew why. We were not given any reason, just that we could not use the phones.”

Gracie Willis, Duran’s attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Duran is one of thousands being detained who are not dangerous.

“Many people continue in those detention centers for no reason,” said Willis. “They do not have the family support or the legal representation that Manuel has.”

Latino Memphis Executive Director Mauricio Calvo said the social services organization currently represents 500 families who have detained loved ones.

“But there are many, many others being represented by other organizations doing the same kind of work,” Calvo said. “Some good things have come out of Manuel’s detention and some other things that happened. Now, Shelby County is the only county in Tennessee where people are no longer held for 48 hours to be turned over to ICE. Memphis is now a more welcoming place.”

Calvo laid Duran’s detention and the intensified efforts by immigration officials to jail and hold undocumented immigrants at the feet of one man.

“This president has made immigration his particular issue from Day One (of his campaign) when he was coming down the escalators,” said Calvo. “He called my people killers and rapists. This president is not only racist, but he is xenophobic.

“He has made immigration a target. But we are going to continue to fight,” Calvo added. “This is not how America works. We will push back.”

Duran’s attorney said his legal team will apply for asylum and request his case be moved to a Memphis Immigration Court.”

In a March 2018 ICE report posted by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), nearly 40,000 immigrants had been detained during the prior fiscal year. ICE also said 71 percent of detention operations are directed by a private contractor. Increased raids and detentions have been driven by financial incentives, say some who have criticized the agency.

The ICE report also said that those detained across the nation are classified at a Level 1, which means they pose no threat or danger to their community. Only 15 percent were classified at the highest threat level.

Despite the number of injuries, deaths, over-crowding conditions, lack of adequate food and sleeping accommodations, immigrant detention centers continue passing federal inspections, said the NIJC.

Duran was asked if he ever lost hope.

“I don’t know where I got the strength, but there were times of hopelessness,” he answered. “But I remembered God’s grace and He helped me to get through.”