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Journalist Manuel Duran, SPLC client, receives First Amendment award after winning asylum case

Spanish-language reporter Manuel Duran spent 15 months behind bars after he was arrested while covering a 2018 protest over local immigration enforcement policies in Memphis, Tennessee. His arrest and quest for political asylum in the U.S. sparked international attention, lawsuits and protests as the federal government sought to deport him to his native El Salvador.

Last spring, after a grueling legal battle, he won his asylum case and has a clear path toward long-term legal status in the U.S.

And now Duran, who was represented in his asylum hearing by lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Advocates for Immigrant Rights, has received national attention for his commitment to First Amendment rights.

On Sept. 15, the 46-year-old journalist was honored as one of five recipients of the 2022 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award during a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Bestowed by the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation (HMH), the award spotlights individuals making significant contributions to protecting and enhancing First Amendment rights.

Duran, HMH says on its website, “has demonstrated unflagging courage and commitment to covering protests and real-time issues.”

“It was spectacular,” Duran told the SPLC. “I couldn’t believe it. I became very emotional as I told a bit of my story.”

Living the story

Unlike most reporters who write about immigration, Duran has lived through the ordeals of the immigration system himself.

“I’ve seen the cruelty of the mass detention of immigrants firsthand,” Duran told reporters in 2019, “and it is unnecessary and inhumane.”

Duran’s arrest came in April 2018 while he was reporting on a protest focused on local law enforcement’s practice of detaining immigrants suspected of being in the country without authorization and handing them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). His reporting had been critical of both local law enforcement and ICE, and he believes he was targeted by the agency and Memphis police for just that reason.

Duran and eight other people were jailed and charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway. Duran was the only member of the press arrested.

The protest-related charges were dropped, but Duran was turned over to immigration agents and detained by ICE, initiating the long legal battle. He was released on bond in 2019 and continued to work for his online news outlet, Memphis Noticias.

“I was incredulous,” he said. “I didn’t believe it. I didn’t do anything wrong. It was terrible what was happening in that moment, on that day. I know how the police behave when a person considers them racist, so I was very scared when they arrested me.”

Duran spent much of his time in detention at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana. This he labels as his worst experience, due to being separated from his longtime partner. Duran was also detained at LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana, and at Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, with which ICE severed its contract in 2022.

“The experience affected me psychologically,” Duran said. “I always believed it wasn’t lawful to arrest someone for expressing their rights. It isn’t fair, it isn’t legal. Being detained was like torture; it was impossible to remain calm.”

Duran’s account of what it’s like to be locked up in an immigrant detention center is much like stories shared by other detained and released individuals. The lights remained on in the facility virtually every hour of the day. The shower was inoperable most of the time, and toilet paper was absent on most days. The toilets didn’t work, either.

Whenever Duran was transferred or moved to another facility, he was shackled around the waist, legs and wrists for 12 to 14 hours while riding in a bus – all without being provided food or water and denied permission to use the restroom.

“Even until now, I’m recuperating, little by little,” Duran said. “I feel as if I haven’t recuperated 100%. No one deserves the treatment you get while detained.”

‘A just cause’

Duran began his journalism career in El Salvador at 24. Only six years later, he found himself in hiding with his family, afraid for his life. After broadcasting a television report on corruption in law enforcement and the justice system, he received texts threatening his life.

Duran fled the country, hoping to escape danger and wishing to continue his work as an investigative journalist elsewhere. In his asylum case, Duran explained the increased danger he would face as an investigative journalist under the repressive Salvadoran government if he were deported.

He realizes the importance of the work he is doing and what it means to have freedom to report the truth.

“I believe it’s important to tell stories, because some people just don’t have the power they need,” Duran said. “Freedom of press and speech are fundamental for my work; it’s an important job. Telling stories can change who holds the power. The truth is important.

“Maybe my story affects immigrants, but it affects us all. But never be scared. Fight for what’s just, for what’s right. If you’re fighting for a just cause, for a better life, keep going and fight. This is fundamental to create a more aligned, beautiful and better world for us all.” 

Duran has already created a more beautiful life for himself and his longtime partner: They recently wed after 10 years of dating.

“It’s absolutely wonderful being free, and I am enjoying my freedom,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine that a group of people decided to take a chance and fight for me. I am forever grateful.”

A life he loves

Despite his recent successes, Duran – and all the attorneys involved in his case – have faced a tough battle.

Duran fought inside an immigration detention system designed to force people to give up their cases by subjecting them to inhumane conditions, deportation attempts, and by suppressing their voices.

“The path to this win reminds us of the need to end immigrant detention and reimagine our entire immigration court system,” said Gracie Willis, a senior lead attorney with the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, adding that the win was a team effort. “Still, after four arduous years, we can finally take a deep breath, knowing Duran is safe.”

Willis also noted that Duran’s case is a reminder that the vast majority of the more than 20,000 people in immigrant detention and the 1.5 million people in the immigration court backlog do not have access to the level of support Duran had from attorneys, friends and family members – and people around the nation.

“ICE churns thousands of people every day through the deportation system, many of whom never speak to a lawyer or advocate,” Willis said. “Meritorious cases like Duran’s slip through the cracks and families are torn apart unnecessarily.”

And now, for all that Duran has stood for and survived, Willis doesn’t once question that the journalist was beyond worthy to receive the First Amendment Award.

“Duran’s defense of the First Amendment, from his investigative reporting in El Salvador to his ongoing work with Memphis Noticias, has persisted despite all the obstacles placed in his way,” she said. “This made him an undeniable candidate for the Hefner Foundation Award.”

Duran has found stability after a tumultuous few years, and after being honored by HMH, he said he would like to pass on a message for other immigrants fighting against a system that keeps them oppressed:

“People are fighting, and we can win. Nothing is impossible with God on your side. Maintain faith, focus and fight for what we want – what you want. Anything is possible, believe me.”

Photo at top: Journalist Manuel Duran, pictured above in 2019 after his release from the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, is among five recipients of the 2022 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award. (Credit: Billy Brown)