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ICE criticizes Maryland officials — who push back — over immigration issues in court case

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it asked the Prince George’s County Department of Corrections to detain two teens a year ago.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it asked the Prince George’s County Department of Corrections to detain two teens a year ago. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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The arrests of two teens accused of the MS-13 slaying of a 14-year-old girl rekindled a debate over sanctuary cities Wednesday as Immigration and Customs Enforcement forcefully criticized Maryland authorities for releasing the teens without notifying ICE after the conclusion of an unrelated case.

Josue Fuentes-Ponce, 16, of Bladensburg, Md., and Joel Escobar, 17, of Northeast Washington were arrested last week and charged as adults with another teen in connection with the April 18 death of Ariana Funes-Diaz, of Adelphi, Md.

ICE issued a news release Tuesday night saying it had asked the Prince George’s County Department of Corrections to detain Escobar and Fuentes-Ponce for ICE officials a year ago after their arrests in connection to a robbery case. On Wednesday, the agency sharpened its criticism over the handling of the retainers as it referred to the accusations in the Funes-Diaz case.

“There was no reason for this girl to die,” said ICE spokeswoman Justine M. Whelan. “It’s hard to imagine that anyone would not be interested in ensuring that people like this are not on the streets, doing bad things, after demonstratively violent behavior.”

Maryland officials pushed back, however, arguing that holding the teens because of an ICE detainer — or request — would have violated state guidelines.

The juvenile detention facility that had held Fuentes-Ponce in 2018 said it had not directly received a request from ICE to detain him at the time he was due to be released.

The Washington Post generally does not name juveniles charged with a crime unless they are charged as adults, but federal officials released Fuentes-Ponce’s name in his 2018 case.

“If they really want us to hold somebody, they should get a [criminal] warrant,” said Mary Lou McDonough, director of the Department of Corrections, which released Escobar in March after he had completed his sentence in the 2018 case. “ICE is well aware of how we handle cases in Prince George’s County. We will never hold anybody for ICE, which is what they want you to do with a detainer.”

Fuentes-Ponce had been released from a juvenile detention facility at the conclusion of his 2018 case. The Department of Juvenile Services said in a statement that it “did not directly receive a detainer from ICE” for him but that his release and subsequent rearrest as an adult for murder in the killing of ­Funes-Diaz had “brought up questions of the department’s handling of ICE detainers and the release of the youth.”

The public exchanges among agencies over the teens’ release and Funes-Diaz’s death is the latest episode in an ongoing conflict between the Trump administration in its stepped-up enforcement on undocumented immigration and cities or states that have more immigrant-friendly policies.

Under President Trump, ICE has increased its use of detainers, which is a mechanism that allows immigration officers to take into federal custody individuals who are about to be released from local jails but appear to have an immigration status issue that ICE seeks to review.

Shortly after Trump took office, his administration released a list of law enforcement agencies that allegedly refused to honor detainers.

“ICE is very eager to blame state and local law enforcement officials when high-profile crimes are committed,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, adding that news releases like the one released Tuesday are part of “the Trump administration’s efforts to essentially bully jurisdictions into becoming instruments of immigration enforcement.”

ICE’s attempts to blame local officials for releasing undocumented immigrants who later commit crimes should be taken with “a large helping of salt,” Jadwat said.

In the recent case, Funes-Diaz was killed in a tunnel, naked, beaten with a baseball bat and slashed with a machete, according to police

Fuentes-Ponce arrived to the Texas-Mexico border on Dec. 23, 2015, as part of a family unit, according to ICE. His family was eventually paroled into the country pending the outcome of the immigration case, an ICE statement said, and on March 16, 2017, an immigration judge ordered him removed in absentia.

Escobar was detained near McAllen, Tex., on Aug. 23, 2016, the agency said. Because he was an unaccompanied minor, he was transferred into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and later released to a relative in the Washington area, according to ICE.

The two teenagers were arrested May 11, 2018, for attempted first-degree murder and attempted armed robbery and other related charges, according to ICE, which said it filed detainers for both on that day.

Escobar was charged as an adult in the 2018 case, according to court records. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery and was sentenced to 308 days and credited with time served, online case records show.

In the May 10, 2018, armed robbery case, court records asserted that Escobar was among a group of young men that demanded money from two people at a gas station in Riverdale, Md.

Escobar and another member of the group “then displayed gang signs with their hands and stated that they were MS-13 members and that the victims needed to give them money for being in their territory or they were going to get hurt,” according to charging documents. When the victims refused, one member of the group attacked them with a machete as Escobar allegedly attempted to keep one victim from getting up, the charging documents show.

Because Fuentes-Ponce’s case went through the juvenile system, it cannot be determined what the outcome was after his arrest and whether he was found to have had a role in the alleged crimes.

Funes-Diaz was killed by MS-13 gang members who worried she was about to hand them over to law enforcement for a robbery, police say.

Escobar, Fuentes-Ponce and Cynthia Hernandez-Nucamendi, 14, are charged as adults. Prosecutors contend Funes-Diaz was taken on April 18 to a tunnel under an overpass by a creek, where Escobar attacked her with a wooden bat and Fuentes-Ponce with a machete, while another person — who is being sought — captured the killing on a camera phone, according to charging documents.

It would be a month before Funes-Diaz’s naked body was found.