At a time when threats to liberty and justice abound, having an ally and supporter like Melisa Valdez is invaluable. A 14-year resident of Memphis, Valdez appreciates the convenience of what the city has to offer, as well as the fact that she can get anywhere in town without being trapped in big-city traffic snarls. In her role as a web designer and developer at New Urban Media, a local web design firm, Valdez works with several well-known Memphis clients.
In spite of her professional success, Valdez’ name has been in the news recently for a very sobering reason: she is the fiancée of Manuel Duran, the journalist who was arrested during a protest at 201 Poplar in April and sent to Louisiana to await possible deportation. Valdez talked with Focus about her relationship with Duran, the impact his arrest has had on her, and her thoughts on how we can all be allies for each other.
What are some of the causes and communities you feel especially close to?
Justice and equality are very important to me. I’m especially close to the gender equality and Black Lives Matter movements. But, being an immigrant myself, immigrant rights is my main focus.
I volunteered religiously for a year with the Community Legal Center, three times a week after work (I was working part-time at a radio station as content manager at the time) a couple of years ago. I was then hired by them as Bilingual Intake Coordinator and I worked with them for almost a year after that.
Tell me about your relationship with Manuel Duran. When and where did you meet? How long have you been together?
Our first date was in February 2008. We were bandmates at my church’s worship band when we met. I’ve been with him for a little over 10 years.
What is it like trying to keep Memphis Noticias alive in Manuel’s absence?
Between my job and my trips down to Louisiana, it has been challenging. Manuel was doing a lot of field work and I just don’t have any time to do that. I try to cover as much as possible, but it hasn’t been easy.
How often do you speak with him and what do you speak about?
I talk to Manuel at least twice a day, every day. We talk about everything. We talk about current events, we talk about our future, we remember our past. Most of all, we try to keep positive.
What do you believe the relationship is between Memphis police and ICE?
The Memphis Police has always collaborated with ICE, even though they have always denied it. I understand their reasons. The Latino Community is more vulnerable to crime if they can’t trust local police. The undocumented community will not report a crime if they think Memphis police collaborates with ICE. But I know people like Manuel. I know people who were picked up by the Memphis police for no good reason, handed over to the county, run through the system, and held for ICE.
How transparent do you believe city administration has been in communicating their cooperation/ relationship with ICE?
The city administration lies systematically about their relationship with ICE. They will deny their collaboration on camera and turn back and grab a journalist from the crowd, accuse him with false charges just to run him through the system. While Manuel was being held, after we paid the bond in full, they denied there was an ICE hold. They told the media he was still in jail because the bond hadn’t been paid, then they told the media he was being held because he hadn’t signed the bond. They deny honoring ICE holds, but they do honor them. All the time. It’s not just Manuel. People have been contacting Manuel for years with similar stories.
How has this process and Manuel’s detainment affected you psychologically?
I’m extremely tired and I’m angry all the time. The day that Manuel was detained, my world stopped. I couldn’t eat or sleep for days. I still keep my phone close by just in case Manuel calls and I jump every time it rings. I’m very anxious all the time.
In what ways do you think the communities that stand in opposition to Trump’s policies – Latinx, African American, LGBT+, allies and supporters – can work together to keep the current administration in check? Is it possible?
I do think it is possible to keep this administration in check. I think from what I see in Memphis that it is already happening, communities have come together, have adopted other communities’ issues, and we’re starting to protect each other. I saw it the day Manuel was arrested, there were various groups protesting private prisons and the imprisonment of undocumented immigrants.
What is your hope for the future, with regard to both Manuel’s story and in general as it relates to the social/ political landscape?
I hope Manuel doesn’t have to spend much more time in detention. I hope he is allowed to fight his case in front of the Immigration Court while in Memphis.
The fight for social justice will never be over. We need to keep working together, we need to keep fighting for our rights and the rights of our neighbors. The movement for equality, whatever the flag we’re under and whatever the administration, has always been here and will always be.
I think by working together we can make the system a little better, a little fairer, but there will always be oppression.
Duran had lived in Memphis for 10 years when he was arrested by Memphis police; he was covering a protest of immigration detention practices by MPD. Bond was posted, but Duran was not released. Instead, MPD turned him over to ICE, who sent him directly to the deportation processing center in Jena, Louisiana. The Southern Poverty Law Center has declared these moves a violation of Duran’s First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. This is the timeline of events.
Manuel Duran Ortega, 42, is a journalist from El Salvador who fled to the United States in 2006 in response to death threats he received after his reporting un- covered corruption in his home country. Duran worked for several news outlets before starting Memphis Noticias, a news website that addresses a significant need in the Memphis and the Mid-South: connecting the Spanish-speaking population with news pertaining to the city in which they live.
In recent years, Duran reported on police cooperation with ICE and general misconduct involving the Latinx community, including the case of 33-year-old Bardomiano Pérez Hernández. Hernandez’ body was eventually found in the back of a van that had been in police custody for 49 days.
Memphis police requested that Duran remove these and similar stories from his website, a request with which he did not comply.
In the course of exercising his First Amendment rights, as well as fulfilling journalism’s important watchdog duties as the Fourth Estate, Duran was arrested and is now being detained pending deportation to El Salvador, where threats against his life remain active.
April 3, 2018
A protest against immigration detention and Memphis police department’s cooperation with ICE was held at 201 Poplar in Memphis. While filming the protest for Memphis Noticias, Memphis police took Duran into custody, charging him with disorderly conduct and obstruction of a highway or passageway. His bond, set at $100, was paid by Melisa Valdez that evening. He was not released.
April 5, 2018
Duran’s case related to his participation in the protest was dismissed. Rather than release him, Shelby County officials turned Duran over to ICE, who then trans- ported him directly to the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana. Memphis-area immigrants facing deportation are ordinarily sent to a short-term holding center in nearby Mason, Tennessee, first. Sending Duran directly to a long-term facility represented yet another deviation from protocol.
April 9, 2018
Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released a statement demanding Duran’s immediate release. In the statement, SPLC’s deputy legal director, Michelle Lapointe, said, “’[Duran’s] unlawful arrest and unconstitutional detention only serve to silence free speech and press, and create more fear and mistrust of law enforcement in immigrant communities.’”
April 13, 2018
SPLC filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, seeking Duran’s release on grounds of unlawful detainment “in violation of the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
May 30, 2018
The Board of Immigration Appeals in Falls Church, Virginia, issued a stay of deportation. Duran had already been transferred to the ICE staging facility in Alexandria, Louisiana; he was scheduled to be removed to El Salvador the following day.
Late June, 2018
Christina Swatzell, co-counsel of the Immigrant Rights Defense Center of Latino Memphis, pre- pared a 400-page petition for Duran’s release in advance of an ICE custody review. “That petition for release was denied without explanation to counsel,” Swatzell said. “A custody review is discretionary and ultimately determined by ICE.”
August 2, 2018
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists issued a press release indicating that the organization’s amicus brief, or a letter written by an uninvolved party offering insight to a court about a case, is accepted for filing. The brief alleges that Duran’s continued detainment is a violation of his First Amendment rights.
As of the time this story was written (Aug. 10), Duran remains in ICE custody in Jena, Louisiana. He’s spent 128 days in custody. Swatzell explained to Focus that until a decision is reached regarding Duran’s deportation, he will continue to be detained. His next custody review is scheduled to take place later this year.
You can donate to the fund to Free Manuel Duran at freemanuelduran.org.