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A Spanish-language journalist covered ICE detention. Then he lived through it.

Memphis-based journalist Manuel Duran was detained in an immigrant detention center for 15 months. On July 17, he held a news conference in Memphis. (Video: Latino Memphis)

There were bugs, and the showers were cold. Air conditioning was not available, but the heat was turned on inexplicably. If you didn’t have family in the United States to send money for food, you would go hungry.

Those are just some of the conditions Manuel Duran described after he was released from a U.S. immigration detention center. As a journalist in Memphis, Duran had been reporting on immigration enforcement officials and sordid conditions for more than a decade by the time they took him into custody last year. Now, he says he’s experienced the neglect himself.

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

Duran, a native of El Salvador, had been working for the Spanish-language news outlet Memphis Noticias.

After being released last week from 15 months in detention, Duran, 43, decried what he called the brutal treatment of immigrants by President Trump’s administration. Detention centers have faced severe overcrowding in the past several months, prompting outrage and calls for reform. Unlike many reporters who focus on immigration, Duran has lived through the detention conditions he covers.

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Migrants did not get enough food at any of the four facilities where Duran was held, he said at the news conference Wednesday. They had to buy rations with money sent by their families, and if they didn’t have relatives in the United States, the migrants would go hungry.

The holding facilities were infested with cockroaches and spiders, Duran said. At Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, he said he had to bathe with cold water from hoses for two months. The air conditioner was being repaired for most of the spring, Duran said, and the heat was turned on at one point for no clear reason, making it difficult for the migrants to sleep.

“I’ve seen the disastrous effect of Trump’s anti-immigrant policy,” Duran said. “I’ve seen working men, businessmen, who have lived their whole lives in this country and who haven’t committed crimes crying and longing to reunite with their families.”

Duran alleged that ICE had singled him out for detention because he was a journalist from El Salvador. His attorneys at the Southern Poverty Law Center also argued in a court document that law enforcement had arrested and detained Duran in an attempt to suppress his reporting critical of immigration enforcement.

“In the U.S., we are made to believe that freedom of the press is valued, but I can tell you all that under the Trump administration, this isn’t true,” Duran said.

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Duran was released from detention on bond July 11 while the Board of Immigration Appeals considers whether to grant him asylum because journalists face dangerous conditions in El Salvador, his attorneys said.

Gracie Willis, a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Duran decided to speak to reporters about his experience in detention because he considers journalism a form of advocacy.

“I think, for him, it was important for him to speak to the press, who are his brothers and sisters in his vocation — to inform them about the things that he saw,” Willis said in an interview.

On April 3, 2018, Duran was reporting on a demonstration against local police helping Immigration and Customs Enforcement when Memphis police arrested him while they were trying to clear people from the street, according to Duran’s attorneys. Duran was charged with disorderly conduct and obstruction of a highway, the lawyers wrote in the court document, but the charges were dropped two days later.

Instead of releasing Duran from jail, his attorneys said he was turned over to ICE and brought on an eight-hour bus ride to the LaSalle detention center in Jena, La. — without access to a bathroom and with his wrists, ankles and waist in shackles.

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Duran migrated to the United States in 2006, when his television reporting in El Salvador subjected him to death threats, his attorneys wrote. He missed an immigration court hearing the next year because he was not told about it, according to his attorneys, causing a judge to issue a removal order for him.

ICE on Thursday did not respond to a request for information about Duran’s case and a response to his criticisms of the detention centers.

Mauricio Calvo, the executive director of Latino Memphis, said in an interview that many other immigrants face the same harrowing conditions that Duran described. Attorneys from Latino Memphis, an organization that provides services and advocates for policies that benefit Latinos, were part of Duran’s legal team.

“This guy had a lot of support because he’s a journalist and all these different things,” Calvo said, “but we have 500 cases at Latino Memphis, and most people cannot get the attention that Manuel did.”

Duran is not the first foreign-born journalist to be detained by ICE. Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a Mexican reporter, migrated to the United States in 2008 after he says soldiers broke into his home and took his identity documents. He and his son Oscar were denied asylum in 2017 and temporarily detained. Their immigration cases are ongoing.

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