‘Just Treat Me with Dignity’

The unresolved case of a reporter from El Salvador seeking asylum

Courtesy SPLC. Photo by Billy Brown

In 2018, on the morning of April 3, a journalist named Manuel Duran Ortega left his home with his fiancée, Melisa Valdez. Ortega and Valdez live in Memphis, Tennessee, and, as they drove downtown, they saw some forty or fifty people gathered at the Shelby County Criminal Center. The crowd was protesting the collaboration between local police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ice). Ortega pulled over. “Stay here,” he told Valdez. “I will be back in five minutes.” From the demonstration—where people chanted “Education, no incarceration!”—he sent her a text: “Forget five minutes, this is going to get intense.” Valdez left, and replied that she’d pick him up later.

Ortega, who is forty-three, is the founder and sole editor of Memphis Noticias, a local Spanish-language news outlet for immigrants. At the rally, he began livestreaming to the site’s Facebook page, which has some twenty-three thousand followers. He was visible in the scene, wearing a black blazer, a bright blue polo, and a press badge. After about fifteen minutes, police came by, telling protesters to move out of the street. In Ortega’s livestream, viewers could see officers begin to arrest people for failing to comply with their orders. Soon that included Ortega, who was dragged off as two women shouted “He is a reporter!” 

There were other members of the local press at the scene, but Ortega was the only journalist arrested. He spent two days in a county jail and was charged with disorderly conduct and obstruction of a highway. The judge dismissed all criminal charges against him, but he was not released. Instead, he was handed over to ice


Ortega was born in Ozatl
án, a town of about thirteen thousand people in southern El Salvador. From a young age, he knew how violent gangs could be—he once witnessed a gang member threaten a student with a machete—and he also knew that he wanted to study journalism. As he got older, he turned his attention to government corruption. He was aware that his focus could make him a target. “I was thinking, somehow, the constitution will protect me from the risks,” he recalls.

In 2005, a friend of Ortega’s bought a local TV station, Canal 65, and offered him a job there. According to court documents, an employee from a rival station tapped connections in law enforcement to get Ortega and a colleague arrested. In court, the judge dismissed the case and released them. Later, Ortega produced an investigative report exposing the corruption that led to his arrest. When the report aired, Ortega and his colleague received threatening text messages and phone calls. “Get out of the country or you will regret it,” one of the messages read. “We will kill you,” warned another. 

Afraid for his life, Ortega fled El Salvador in June 2006 to seek asylum in the United States. Soon after he entered the country, he was apprehended by Border Patrol agents in Laredo, Texas, where he signed a notice to appear in immigration court. After that, he was released. The document was in English—a language he couldn’t read—so after being let go, he took a bus to Charlotte, North Carolina, to stay with a friend, unaware that he’d committed himself to appearing before a judge.

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Ortega lived in Charlotte for eight months, first finding work as a carpenter and then landing a job at a local radio station, La Raza, where he covered entertainment and fashion news in Spanish. But ice was not finished with him: because he’d failed to appear in immigration court, a judge ordered that Ortega be deported in absentia. 

Toward the end of 2007, Ortega was contacted by a couple of his cousins who lived in Memphis. They suggested he move near them; there were good job opportunities in town, they said. When Ortega arrived, he started going to church. Valdez was there, playing guitar in the band. He joined, too; he plays bass. Early on, all their conversations were about music, but eventually they started speaking about everything else. There was only one exception. “We didn’t talk about his undocumented status,” she says. “I guess it was like the elephant in the room.” Valdez tells me now that, when Ortega was put behind bars, she thought, “The country has failed me.”

Ortega started Memphis Noticias in 2016, using his savings and soliciting ads from local businesses. It was mostly a one-man operation; sometimes Valdez and other friends sent him submissions. Ortega published interviews with the mayor of Memphis and police officials, as well as investigative reporting on ice’s collaboration with local authorities. “Manuel is the go-to journalist in the Latino community in Memphis,” Ivan Flores, a Memphis-based community organizer, said in court in April 2018. “He had honest coverage of everything he reported on, and people respected his work.”

In July 2017, Ortega interviewed a friend of someone who was detained in a joint operation by ice and the Memphis police. In his report, shared on the Memphis Noticias Facebook page, Ortega exposed how local officers were working closely with ice agents to detain immigrants—news that contradicted the official police narrative. Later that month, court documents show, a police officer texted Ortega, asking him to take the Facebook post down. Ortega refused. 

After that, Ortega says, he was no longer invited to press briefings by the Memphis police. When he ran another story that was damning of the police—about a corpse left in a van in a police impoundment lot for forty-nine days—he heard rumors that he’d better “be careful.” He believes that his coverage is what finally landed him in ice custody.

 

Typically, ice brings people to a local office; there’s one in Memphis. But in Ortega’s case, they transferred him directly to LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana. “I was in shock,” he recalls. “I didn’t think something like this would happen to me.” The officers “chained my wrists, ankles, and waist like a criminal,” he says. For eight hours—the time it took for him to be transferred in a bus from Memphis to LaSalle—he wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom.

Latino Memphis, a local advocacy group, received calls from Ortega’s friends informing the organization of the arrest, and eventually got in touch with the Southern Poverty Law Center, seeking a lawyer on his behalf. Ortega was eventually assigned Gracie Willis, who soon set in motion an appeal to the immigration court. But communication was a challenge. “There were several months where we didn’t have any news for him, and we know how easy it is to feel abandoned,” Willis says.

Last February, while the appeal was in process, Ortega was suddenly transferred to Etowah County Detention Center, in Alabama. There was no reason given. When he arrived, he found the conditions to be worse than where he was before. “There were cockroaches on the floor at all times, which made it disgusting to eat,” he says. Most days, he had pasta with soy meat or some rice and beans. Showers had only cold water. He could deal with all that, he says, but he hated to see officers talk to inmates disrespectfully. “I used to tell them, ‘Don’t treat me good but don’t treat me bad. Just treat me with dignity.’ ”

His only respite was speaking to Valdez by phone twice a day; they would have talked more, but he had to pay per call. Valentine’s Day—their anniversary—was miserable. “For me, not being able to see him, or grab my phone and text him, was really difficult,” she says.

Valdez, who works as a Web designer, now found herself with two more jobs—staying in touch with Ortega’s attorneys and maintaining Memphis Noticias in his absence. “I try to keep the website running, but it is not the same without him,” she told me at the time. “He went out and interviewed people. I have no idea how to do that.” Most weekends, she drove the seven hours it took to visit Ortega at the detention center. “There was always a glass window that separated us,” she says. 

 

Spring ended, and summer dawned. In July 2019, after 465 days, Ortega was released on a bond. “I feel like I’m reborn,” Ortega said as he walked out of the detention center. “I am happy for this day. It has been a very difficult time, but thanks to God, this is the day I waited for.”

He returned home to Memphis, with Valdez, his request for asylum still unresolved. As he awaited an answer, he got back to work on Memphis Noticias, reporting on local news affecting undocumented immigrants. He also began reaching out to fellow migrants he met in detention, so that he could cover their stories. 

In December, he received word that his case was being moved from a court in Atlanta to one in Memphis. That was good news—Willis had gotten the hearing closer to Ortega’s home. But because of a backlog, the date for his hearing was set for March 2022. 

Until then, he is left in anxious suspense. The other day, Human Rights Watch reported that, over the past seven years, at least 138 deportees have been killed by gangs in El Salvador after US authorities forced migrants to return. The possibility of being sent back looms over Ortega. “I fear returning to El Salvador,” he says. “I believe that if I return I will be killed.”

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Zainab Sultan is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @ZainabSultan.