Salvadoran journalist receives two week stay of deportation from U.S., but lawyers say it is "only a temporary reprieve"

Updated (Nov. 15, 2018): Manuel Durán Ortega, a Salvadoran journalist from Memphis, Tennessee, received a two week stay of deportation while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit considers his emergency motion for a stay, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported.

The SPLC, which represents Durán along with organization Latino Memphis, stressed it was "only a temporary reprieve."

The court order states that the government cannot remove Durán before Nov. 30, 2018.

"We are encouraged that the Eleventh Circuit has postponed action on Manuel's removal for two weeks and that it is considering our legal arguments," said Mary Bauer, deputy legal director for the SPLC. "We believe Manuel faces grave danger if removed to El Salvador and that removal before his case is fully heard is an affront to the First Amendment. Given this danger and the outrageous facts of his arrest, we will do everything to protect him and his First Amendment right of freedom of the press."

Original (Nov. 14, 2018): A Salvadoran journalist who was detained by U.S. immigration officials following his arrest while reporting on an immigration protest may now face deportation after a denial from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).

“I want to say that now my situation is a danger of deportation to my country, when I know perfectly well that I can not return to my country, and I have been saying it to the point of exhaustion and my lawyers have said it to the point of exhaustion, that there is a danger if I return to my country. I must not return,” Manuel Durán Ortega told reporters on Nov. 13 during a conference call from detention at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center.

Manuel Durán

Manuel Durán (Facebook)

“From the moment I left my country, which was due to persecution, threats, work I was developing as a journalist, I left thinking, and I believed it with certainty, that the United States was the right country to be able to develop my profession, for being a country that respected the right to information, the right to press, and I was going to feel good and supported doing my job here.”

Durán, owner and journalist of the Spanish-language news site Memphis Noticias in Tennessee, fled El Salvador in 2006 due to death threats, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF, for its initials in French).

On April 3, 2018, he was arrested while covering a protest against U.S. immigration policies. The journalist was charged with disorderly conduct and obstruction of a highway, but those were later dropped and his case was dismissed.

However, Durán was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on April 5. He has been in detention since.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which represents Durán along with organization Latino Memphis, said he was detained by ICE “in retaliation for reporting on controversial issues related to law enforcement in Tennessee.”

The SPLC said Durán previously reported on local police and ICE and wrote critical articles about the immigration detention system.

“Manuel’s case is part of a disturbing pattern of ICE retaliating against those who speak out about its policies and practices,” said Michelle Lapointe, senior supervising attorney with the organization, on a conference call with reporters.

“During these seven and a half months it has not been easy to live this experience, second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day after day, week after week, month by month. It has not been easy,” Durán said. “From the moment of my arrest, I look at the situation and I realize that by doing my job I am now going through a very difficult situation, however, I know that I have been doing the right thing this whole time.”

He emphasized that it was difficult to be apart from the community he served.

Durán told reporters about the environment in detention, which he said has included a transfer “chained like a criminal,” bad food, unhygienic conditions and very cold rooms.

At Pine Prairie, in Louisiana, for example, he said they were without toilet paper for two weeks.

Bryan D. Cox, spokesman for ICE, said “all ICE detention facilities are subject to regular inspections, both announced and unannounced, and the LaSalle ICE Processing Center has repeatedly been found to operate in compliance with ICE’s rigorous Performance Based National Detention Standards.”

He added that there are multiple levels of oversight to ensure “safe, secure and human environments.”

In April, lawyers for Durán filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, but the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana denied the petition in September.

They also filed a motion to reopen his proceedings with an immigration court in Atlanta, Georgia, Lapointe said. According to the lawyer, in 2007, an immigration court in Georgia ordered Durán’s removal from the U.S. The lawyer said they wanted to reopen the removal proceedings so Durán could apply for asylum, on the basis that he never received notice of the removal hearing in 2007 and that conditions for journalists in El Salvador had gotten worse, she added. An immigration judge denied the motion.

They appealed to the BIA and received a stay of removal in May while the board had Durán’s case, Lapointe explained. Press organizations submitted a friend of the court brief highlighting the conditions for journalists in El Salvador and the first Amendment rights of both Durán and his readers, according to the lawyer. That appeal was denied on Oct. 17.

On Oct. 30, they filed a petition for review with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, as well as a motion for a stay of deportation, Lapointe said. That motion is pending.

The ultimate goal is for the case to be reopened so that Durán can request asylum through immigration courts, according to the lawyer.

Right now, the concern is Durán’s possible deportation. Lapointe said they expect for Durán’s removal “to occur very rapidly”; it could happen within the next two weeks if the Eleventh Circuit does not issue a stay. She explained that in May, Durán was transferred to a temporary holding facility in Alexandria, Louisiana and there was an attempt to deport him, but they received a stay from the BIA.

Durán is still reporting while in detention in Jena, Louisiana. While on the conference call, he told journalists about the people inside whose stories he hopes he can write about one day.

The journalist said he came to the U.S. to contribute.

“I did not consider myself a person who came here, to this country, to subtract,” he said. “On the contrary, I feel that I have come to add, to do great things for this country.”

Durán is not the only journalist from Latin America who fled to the U.S. and is fighting deportation.

Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto came to the U.S. in 2008 after he said he was threatened by the military and was told he would be killed. His recently pleaded his case to a Texas immigration judge for the second time and is waiting for a decision.