Update: In an amended criminal complaint filed on February 28, U.S. Border Patrol admitted that its officers had waited outside of the protective order courtroom for Gonzalez.
On February 9, agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement waited on the tenth floor of the El Paso County Courthouse. Inside a courtroom, Irvin Gonzalez, a transgender woman from Mexico, was filing for a protective order against her ex-boyfriend Mario Alberto De Avila. Gonzalez alleged that in 2016, she’d been punched, choked, and chased with a knife. She received her protective order. But when Gonzalez stepped outside the courtroom, the ICE agents waiting outside escorted her out of the building and into a vehicle parked in front of the courthouse.
A statement from ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa said that Gonzalez had been convicted of possession of stolen mail, for which she served jail time, and that she’d previously been deported six times. Gonzalez waits in custody—without her hormone treatments—to see whether she’ll be indicted on charges of illegal re-entry into the U.S. or if she’ll be returned to ICE and ultimately deported again.
Meanwhile, her arrest has gained national attention, specifically because of its location. Natalia Drelichman, an immigration lawyer for American Gateways, a non-profit that provides free and low-cost legal immigration services in Central Texas, said Gonzalez’s arrest is an “unprecedented event” that could have a negative effect on undocumented immigrants who are seeking protection from domestic violence or sexual assault.
“Distrust is building, I would say, between the immigrant community and law enforcement. If things like this continue, I would imagine that it would continue to have a chilling effect where folks wouldn’t feel comfortable reporting crimes to law enforcement, because in their minds they’re going to associate law enforcement with immigration,” Drelichman said. She added that the expansion of a federal program that would ask state and local law enforcement to help make immigration-related arrests could only further that concern in immigrant communities.
A 2015 ACLU report that surveyed lawyers, advocates, and non-profits on the policing concerns of victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse found that 54 percent of those surveyed believed that police were either “often” or “sometimes” biased against immigrants. Survey participants also reported that victims contacting police “often” or “sometimes” resulted in immigration related consequences.
Courthouse security footage, released after the detainment, shows the agents approaching Gonzalez inside the courthouse and leading her outside. The footage, along with the eyewitness accounts, contradicts a criminal complaint filed by John P. Urquidi, a border patrol agent, which states that ICE agents “observed Gonzalez exiting the El Paso County Courthouse and proceeded to walk along the side walk [sic]” where they then approached her and arrested her. Gonzalez’s attorneys are asking for her release based on Urquidi’s statement, arguing that she cannot be held on an arrest warrant based on perjury.
In an emailed statement, ICE spokesperson Zamarripa said that agents encountered Gonzalez inside the El Paso County Courthouse, and that they’d been asked to detain her for “a felony charge of illegally re-entering the United States after having been deported.” ICE has yet to publicly comment on the case, but according to the El Paso Times, county officials felt that after they met with local immigration officials, that officers “understood that their agents shouldn’t be hanging around the protective-order court.”
But that hasn’t eased the fears of many undocumented immigrants with upcoming court dates. “Certainly we have seen an increased volume of calls from our clients who are saying that have a court hearing coming up,” said Stephanie Karr, the executive director of the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence in El Paso. “Should they go, should they not go? And there’s certainly some fear and anxiety about going to court now as a result of that. I would just say generally speaking, for many survivors of violence, going to court and getting a protective order has a lot of anxiety associated with it under the best of circumstances. So when there’s a perceived barrier that is put in place that increases that anxiety and stress and perhaps reluctance to move forward.”
Karr believes that ICE has guidelines in place that address where detentions should and should not happen, citing churches as places where ICE agents are encouraged not to go. But it’s currently unclear if the guidelines exist, or if protective order court would be included on such a list of places. When asked about the circumstances of Gonzalez’s arrest and whether ICE has these guidelines in place, Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Douglas Mosier said in an emailed statement that they were not able to provide comment on a pending review by the Office of the Inspector General. He added that “CBP and ICE take all allegations involving agent/officer conduct and integrity very seriously, and hold their personnel to the highest standards of professionalism and personal conduct.”
Gonzalez’s attorneys also alleged that the agents were tipped off by her ex-boyfriend, who is already in custody. Karr said that threats of deportation are part of an “arsenal of manipulative tools” that abusers use to prevent their victims from reporting them or leaving the relationship. U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke, who met with county and immigration officials after the arrest, wants to investigate whether Gonzalez’s arrest violated the Violence Against Women Act if agents did indeed act on a tip from her alleged abuser. ICE has stated they were informed about Gonzalez from another law enforcement agency, but has not specified which one.
“Imagine if you are someone in that situation who is just trying to get help,” Drelichman said. “You were just trying to separate from your abusive partner or just trying to get some sort of protection so you could feel safe and you are then getting picked up by immigration and being told that you don’t deserve those rights because you are somebody who doesn’t have documentation here in the United States. That’s most certainly not the best approach in terms of community policing and assuring that we have safer communities here in Texas.”