Federal immigration agents went to the El Paso County Courthouse last week and arrested an undocumented woman who had just received a protective order alleging that she was a victim of domestic violence.
The agents apparently detained the woman Feb. 9 after receiving a tip, possibly from her alleged abuser, whom they already had in custody, El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal said.
The detention has alarmed Bernal and other county officials who fear that the arrest will scare undocumented victims of domestic abuse into staying with their abusers for fear of being deported and separated from their children or other family members.
However, a criminal complaint on file with the U.S. District Court in El Paso indicates that a person of the same name as the alleged victim might have a history of deportation and domestic violence.
Bernal was not aware of the complaint, filed by U.S. immigration officials, when she spoke about the arrest earlier in the day. She said, however, that her office cooperates with federal authorities when serious crimes are alleged.
“Our clients come to us at the lowest point in their lives. Many of them are so frightened of coming to us because of possible immigration concerns.”
El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal
But she and other officials said protective-order courts are not the place for immigrant detentions.
“Our clients come to us at the lowest point in their lives,” said Bernal, whose office represents domestic abuse victims when they seek court orders against their abusers. “Many of them are so frightened of coming to us because of possible immigration concerns.”
Bernal said her office is taking steps to relieve those fears in the wake of last week’s arrest.
The alleged abuser, Mario Alberto De Avila, is jailed on a charge of forgery of a financial document, the criminal complaint states.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment Wednesday to questions about the incident.
The criminal complaint states that on Feb. 2, Homeland Security Investigations Border Enforcement Security Taskforce agents received information that Irvin Gonzalez, who also is known as Ervin Gonzalez, was in the U.S. despite having been previously deported. The information received stated that Gonzalez was staying at the Center Against S*xual and Family Violence.
The complaint, filed Feb. 9, indicates that Gonzalez, whom Bernal identified as transgender, had been deported six times since 2010 — apparently after arrests for crimes including possession of stolen mail, false imprisonment and assault.
Its narrative differs, however, from what Bernal unearthed in her investigation in a key respect. The complaint says Gonzalez was arrested on the street, while investigators looking into the detention for Bernal said it happened inside the courthouse.
“There were six ICE agents on the 10th floor,” Bernal said.
The arrest comes at a time of heightened concerns that under the administration of President Donald Trump, ICE is expanding who it tries to deport and how it goes about deporting them.
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The woman is being held in the El Paso County Jail under a federal ICE detainer, Bernal said.
Her arrest comes to light along with news that ICE conducted an immigration raid in Las Cruces on Wednesday, rounded up 51 people in Austin since last week and conducted sweeps in numerous other states.
Bernal, whose office is conducting an investigation into the incident, said the ICE agents said they went to court after receiving a tip. Gonzalez’s live-in boyfriend had earlier been detained by ICE, Bernal said.
“We suspect it’s the (alleged) abuser” who tipped off ICE about the woman, Bernal said.
El Paso County officials say they don’t want ICE to get into the habit of going to the courthouse and acting on such tips.
It’s common for abusers to seek to control undocumented partners by threatening to refer them to immigration authorities, said 65th District Judge Yahara Lisa Gutierrez, who oversees the court that issued Gonzalez’s protective order.
Whatever her own history, the woman made three police reports late last year, alleging that she had been punched, kicked and chased with a knife, Bernal said.
Judge Gutierrez said ICE agents should avoid effectively assisting domestic abusers by acting on their tips against their partners.
“There’s no place for that — especially in family court,” she said.
“It’s certainly an underreported crime. If there’s a fear they or their families will get deported, they won’t come forward.”
Stephanie Karr, executive director of El Paso’s Center Against S*xual and Family Violence
Bernal said she’s doing all she can to reassure victims of abuse — especially if they’re undocumented.
“We will do everything in our power to get them the protection they need,” she said, explaining that her office does not inquire about abuse victims’ citizenship.
Bernal’s staff is also researching immigration law and is trying to communicate to ICE to make sure further arrests don’t take place in or near family court.
“We are hopeful that this is an isolated incident and that this never happens again,” she said.
El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar said she is worried that word about the woman’s arrest is already spreading in the immigrant community — which is large in a border city such as El Paso.
The county judge said she is considering asking Bernal’s office to work with civil rights groups to put together a pamphlet explaining people’s rights when they’re approached by federal agents. She said similar pamphlets were distributed in the 1990s after agents started asking students’ immigration status near Bowie High School, which lies within shouting distance of the Mexican border.
It’s possible that not only undocumented victims of abuse will be scared into the shadows, said Stephanie Karr, executive director of El Paso’s Center Against S*xual and Family Violence. Victims are beaten down physically and emotionally and reluctant to come forward without the fear of arrest, she said.
“It’s certainly an underreported crime,” Karr said. “If there’s a fear they or their families will get deported, they won’t come forward.”
Phoenix mother deported:
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She committed a felony in 2008, but her attorneys say it wasn’t until President Donald Trump took a hard line on immigration enforcement policies that she was deported, separating her from her two children.