February 16, 2017 at 5:33 AM
A hearing in El Paso County in Texas went from ordinary to "unprecedented" last week when half a dozen Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up at a courthouse where an undocumented woman was seeking a protective order against the boyfriend she accused of abusing her.
The woman, a citizen of Mexico who was living in El Paso had been driven to the courthouse by a victim's advocate from the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence, a shelter for victims of domestic abuse where she had been living.
She left under arrest.
"This is really unprecedented," El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal told The Washington Post.
It was the first time in her 23 years at the courthouse, Bernal said, that she can remember ICE agents making their presence known during a protective order hearing. The agents had come to stake out the woman, identified by her initials I.E.G., because, Bernal speculates, they likely received a tip from the only other person who knew the time and place of the hearing — the woman's alleged abuser.
The woman had a prior criminal record and had been previously deported, but, according to Bernal, had no current outstanding state warrants.
"It really was a stunning event," Bernal said. "It has an incredible chilling effect for all undocumented victims of any crime in our community."
It is county policy not to ask about citizenship status, Bernal said, because officials want to make clear that all victims of crime in El Paso are entitled to the same protections within the criminal justice system.
The arrest of the domestic violence complainant comes at a time of considerable unrest and anxiety within the immigrant community nationwide as President Trump begins to make good on the strict immigration policies that defined his campaign. Since taking office just four weeks ago, Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding to "sanctuary cities," which have a policy of protecting illegal immigrants and not cooperating with federal authorities to deport them. And, Trump says, he started the planning process for his Mexican border wall.
Already the policies have led to the deportation of an undocumented mother from Arizona who, rather than dodge her check-in with immigration officials, dutifully went and was detained. In Seattle, a 23-year-old man who had been living legally in the United States under the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was arrested and detained last week by ICE officials who claimed he was a gang member, something his lawyers deny.
And in Denver, an undocumented mother of four who had been living in the United States for 20 years sought refuge in the basement of a church this week rather than check in with authorities, for fear she too would be deported.
In El Paso, Bernal said her office, which prosecutes criminal cases and represents alleged victims of domestic violence, like I.E.G., has felt the weight of this policy shift in recent weeks. Call volume has increased from concerned El Paso residents, she said, who have reported checkpoints in certain parts of town and the appearance of ICE agents at routine traffic stops.
What concerns her and other local officials most of all, though, is how last week's courthouse incident could have a greater impact on the way crime is — or isn't — reported within the immigrant community.
"An incident like what happened in the courthouse last week really puts fear in people," Bernal said. "One of the things that really worries me is that it only takes one isolated incident like this."
Whether the courthouse stakeout was indeed an isolated incident remains unclear. An ICE spokeswoman declined to comment Wednesday in response to questions from El Paso Times reporter Marty Schladen, who first wrote about the case.
Bernal is trying to mitigate the situation and ease anxiety, she told The Post, by reaching out to Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Tex.), an El Paso native. The county attorney asked Beto Wednesday to set up a meeting with her office and the local ICE director to get "assurance from ICE that this is an isolated incident and that this isn't going to happen again," Bernal said.
After the courthouse incident last week, Bernal's office launched an investigation, which unearthed a narrative of the day's events that differs from the one outlined in court documents filed by ICE.
Based on eyewitness accounts from several attorneys in Bernal's office, the judge who granted the undocumented woman's protective order and the victim's advocate assisting her, there were six ICE agents inside the courthouse that day — one inside the courtroom and others standing by the door and stairwells. They escorted her down the hallway, into the elevator and outside the building, where they detained her, Bernal said.
The narrative of the ICE affidavit, however, does not mention any contact inside the courthouse or the courtroom.
The affidavit claims that agents were "conducting surveillance" at the courthouse "in attempts of seeing" the woman. At 9:30 a.m., the affidavit says, agents saw the woman "exiting the El Paso County Courthouse and proceeded to walk along the side walk on San Antonio Avenue." Agents identified themselves and questioned I.E.G., who admitted to being a Mexican citizen who was in the United States without legal status.
According to the affidavit, I.E.G. has a criminal and immigration history that dates back to 2010 and includes numerous deportations and arrests for assault, violating probation, domestic violence, false imprisonment and possession of stolen mail.
Even so, Bernal said, "it's hard to imagine how they would justify the rationale" for staking out a courtroom that deals in granting protective orders.
"If that person was that dangerous, state law enforcement would have been looking for her," Bernal said. "It doesn't make sense why the resources would be used to go after a victims of domestic abuse. … It seems to be they are continuing to victimize our client."
Last fall the undocumented immigrant filed her first of three police reports against her live-in boyfriend, whom she accused of punching, kicking and choking her, and of pulling her hair. A report from December alleged, according to Bernal, that after failing to stab her with a knife, the boyfriend threw the blade at her instead. He missed.
Out of fear, the woman fled the city, Bernal said, and returned several weeks later to live at the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence. She filed a police report with El Paso Police and filed for a protective order on Jan. 26.
The ICE affidavit does not identify from whom they learned of the woman's undocumented status, but it says the department "received information that an individual who had been previously deported was in the United States." The information "mentioned" that the woman had filed a protective order against her boyfriend, who, at the time the affidavit was filed, was in custody for forgery of a financial instrument. The affidavit also states the exact time and place of the woman's court hearing and that she was living at the domestic violence shelter.
District Judge Yahara Lisa Gutierrez oversees the court that issued the woman's protective order and told the El Paso Times that it isn't uncommon for abusers to threaten to report their undocumented partners to immigration officials as a means of control.
Gutierrez told the Times that ICE agents should not act on tips from abusers.
"There's no place for that," Gutierrez said, "especially in family court."