Memphis-Based Journalist Taken Into ICE Custody After Arrest While Covering Protest (Updated)

Organizers argued that the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office could have immediately released Manuel Duran after his court hearing, but “decided to stand on the wrong side of history."

As Rewire.News Immigration Reporter Tina Vasquez has explained, "local and state law enforcement agencies have no obligation to honor" ICE detainers. Kena Betancur / Getty

UPDATE, Friday, April 6, 6:30 p.m.: Commercial Appeal reported Friday that Duran has “been transferred to an immigration detention center in Louisiana, his attorney says.”

On Tuesday, nine people, including journalist Manuel Duran, were arrested in Memphis, Tennessee, in front of the Shelby County Jail following a protest. The eight activists arrested have since been released on bail, but Duran, who was covering the protest for Memphis Noticias, remained in custody until his court hearing Thursday morning. As of Thursday afternoon, all the charges against Duran were dropped, but he has since been transferred into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.

As Gabriela Marquez-Benitez, an organizer with Detention Watch Network (DWN), told Rewire.News in a phone interview, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office could have immediately released Duran after his court hearing, but “decided to stand on the wrong side of history and comply [with] this administration’s immigration agencies.”

Protesters arrived outside the Shelby County Jail in Memphis to put on an action that theatrically portrayed an ICE agent followed by inmates wearing scrubs and in shackles and chains. The action was spearheaded by Comunidades Unidas en Una Voz (CUUV), a grassroots immigrant rights organization in Memphis.

As Ivan Flores, an organizer with CUUV and Workers Interfaith Network, told Rewire.News in a phone interview, the action was largely organized to highlight “the privatization of prisons and slave labor that happens in prisons.” It coincided with multiple other events happening in the city for the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. National media and leaders, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), had convened in Memphis for these anniversary events.

Tuesday’s action resulted in multiple arrests, including that of one journalist who was clearly covering the protest.

Micaela Watts, a Memphis-based reporter who covered the action for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, told Rewire.News in a phone interview, “I was around [Manuel Duran] for a few minutes before the protest started when everyone was in sort of a staging phase and getting into costume and getting lined up. And he was about as professional as it got. He was just there, had sort of a selfie stick holding up his phone, he was doing a live stream. And so when the activists were crossing the street, Manuel was in front. He was in front of the whole thing just kind of getting that shot and walking backwards.”

Duran posted his live stream of the protest on the Memphis Noticias Facebook page. Watts noted that in Duran’s live stream, you can see that Duran was backing up and trying to comply with police requests to move out of the street when he was arrested. As Watts told Rewire.News, “There’s just no even discernible guess or reason to why they would arrest him. It makes no sense. And his press badge was on full display. His press credentials were out. It was very clear he was reporting.”

All nine people arrested by police, including Duran, were charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway or passageway, both misdemeanor counts. The Memphis Police Department publicized the charges in a Facebook post on Tuesday. But when the eight activists were released on bail, Duran remained in custody.

The Commercial Appeal reported that Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich issued the following statement after dropping Duran’s charges Thursday morning: “This office has dismissed misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and obstruction of a highway or passageway filed Tuesday against Manuel Duran. There was not sufficient evidence to go forward with prosecution. This ends any legal issues Mr. Duran has with this office.’”

However, Duran was still being held on an ICE detainer. As Rewire.News Immigration Reporter Tina Vasquez has explained, “a detainer is a key tool used by ICE to apprehend undocumented people who come in contact with law enforcement, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Made in writing, the request asks ‘that a local jail or other law enforcement agency detain an individual for an additional 48 hours (excluding weekends and holidays) after his or her release date in order to provide ICE agents extra time to decide whether to take the individual into federal custody for removal purposes,’ the ACLU explains …. Detainer requests are not mandatory or legally required; local and state law enforcement agencies have no obligation to honor them. A detainer does not indicate probable cause and it does not operate as an arrest warrant.”

On Thursday afternoon, Duran was taken into ICE custody. Although ICE did not respond to Rewire.News‘ request for comment, a spokesperson told the Commercial Appeal that Duran “is living in the country illegally” after failing to appear for a scheduled immigration hearing in 2007.

As Marquez-Benitez told Rewire.News, the sheriff’s office did not have to comply in transferring Duran to ICE custody: “So throughout all of this the sheriff and the county have publicly mentioned that they do not collaborate with immigration. We see that this is totally false. And now more than anything it is very clear that with Manuel Duran’s case both the city of Memphis, the Shelby County Office, and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office have shown that they clearly do collaborate with Immigration Customs Enforcement in the case of a journalist who was simply doing his job.”

According to Marquez-Benitez, Duran is a known journalist in Memphis who has been supported by community groups and individuals since his arrest. A letter from about 130 local businesses and local, state, and national organizations was delivered to Sheriff Bill Oldham in support of Duran and asking for his release.

In a press statement released on Thursday evening, CUUV, DWN, and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition denounced ICE for taking Duran into custody. Flores said in the statement, “We believe this is also retaliation against a journalist who has brought to light issues between local enforcement agencies and the immigrant community in Memphis. The decision of the Shelby County sheriff to collaborate with Trump’s ICE agency is a clear example of how the detention and deportation machinery functions in the Mid-South.”

Micaela Watts of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism contributed to this story.

This is a developing story. Rewire.News will continue to report as more information emerges.