MEMPHIS, TENN. - A Spanish-language reporter who was recently released from immigration custody said Wednesday that he was held for 15 months in detention centers that were plagued by insects and he had to bathe with cold water from hoses.
During a news conference, Manuel Duran discussed what he called inhumane conditions at immigration detention facilities in Louisiana and Alabama. Duran was released from an Alabama facility on bail last week as immigration courts consider his request for asylum.
The El Salvador native was arrested while covering an April 3, 2018, rally protesting immigration policies in Memphis. Protesters had blocked a street in front of a downtown courthouse on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.
Protest-related charges were subsequently dropped, but Duran was picked up by immigration agents and detained after he was released from jail.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said Duran was taken into custody because he had a pending deportation order from 2007 after failing to appear for a court hearing. Duran has said he did not receive a notice to appear in court with a time and date on it.
Death threats drove him north
Duran has lived in Memphis for years. He ran the Memphis Noticias online news outlet and reported on the effects of U.S. immigration policies on the Hispanic community. Duran's lawyers have said he came to the United States without permission in 2006 after receiving death threats related to reporting on corruption in El Salvador.
Duran spoke Wednesday from a statement he delivered in Spanish that was later translated into English and read to reporters. Duran questioned his arrest and criticized U.S. policies of arresting immigrants who don't have permission to be in the country and targeting them for deportation.
"I have seen the cruelty of the mass incarceration of immigrants firsthand and it is unnecessary and inhumane," Duran said.
Food portions were small in the detention facilities where he was held, Duran said. Facilities were infested by spiders and cockroaches, and for two months detainees at the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama only had water hoses with which to bathe, he said.
"At Etowah, for two weeks, for no reason, the heater was turned on to its full capacity," Duran said in the translated statement. "This happened during the summer and it was very difficult to sleep."
Duran also said there were no recreation facilities at Etowah and detainees "were locked up without being able to see the sunlight."
"This experience has been very difficult for me and my family, psychologically and economically," Duran said. "I feel that my life has turned 180 degrees and I'm still trying to adapt."
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox challenged Duran's assertion about bathing with hoses in a phone interview with The Associated Press.
"If that were true, I would simply ask you, `Does it seem remotely plausible that you would not have heard about it at the time?' " Cox said.
Cox said all ICE facilities are subject to regular inspections. The Etowah detention center has repeatedly been found to operate in compliance with ICE's standards, Cox said.
Cox said outdoor recreation at Etowah takes place within the detention center, but the recreation area has a fenced roof open to the outside.
As Duran returns to life in Memphis, his deportation case continues. Lawyers with the Southern Poverty Law Center who have been working to free Duran are now concentrating on his request for asylum, said Gracie Willis, one of the center's attorneys.
Lawyers argue that conditions have worsened for journalists in El Salvador and Duran could be in danger if he returns. In granting his release, the Board of Immigration Appeals acknowledged that conditions for reporters have changed for the worse in Duran's home country since his initial deportation order, Willis said.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta has granted Duran an indefinite stay from deportation as his case is argued.
"His individual case epitomizes the crushing weight of the immigration incarceration system and the toll it takes on individuals, families and communities," Willis said at the news conference.