(CN) — Federal immigration agents managed to outrage even a Texas district attorney by arresting a domestic violence victim at the El Paso courthouse, after she was granted a protective order to shield her from an abusive boyfriend.
El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza said Thursday that the arrest sends a “horrible message to the victims of domestic violence on whether or not they’re actually going to have the ability to seek justice in our courthouse.”
“I don’t think it matters what your [immigration] status is,” Esparza said. “Everyone has the right to be free of violence and live in a safe community.”
The transgender woman, identified by the Department of Homeland Security as Irvin Gonzalez, had filed at least three police reports against her partner, who she said punched, kicked and choked her. After her boyfriend allegedly chased her with a knife, she sought a protective order.
On Feb. 9, a federal agent sat through the protective order hearing, while another agent guarded one of the court’s exits, according to El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal.
Bernal said the federal agents probably had been tipped off by the woman’s alleged abuser, who was in custody, and was the only other person who had been given written notice of the hearing.
Although an arrest affidavit claims the woman was picked up on the street outside the courthouse, video footage released by the county attorney’s office shows an immigration officer holding onto her arm as he escorts her from the courthouse.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said in a statement Thursday that Homeland Security and El Paso Border Enforcement Security Task Force agents arrested Gonzalez on a felony charge of illegally re-entering the United States after deportation. She is in custody at El Paso County Jail.
Zamarripa said Gonzalez has been deported six times from the United States, and has been convicted of false imprisonment, assault, larceny, domestic violence and illegal re-entry.
But Bernal said the woman’s previous criminal history is irrelevant, as domestic violence victims do not always have a clean criminal record, and the protective order hearing court should be a place of sanctuary.
“Our job is if that victim has been subjected to violence and is likely to be subjected to serious bodily injury in the immediate future … to offer protection for that victim regardless of her criminal history,” Bernal said.
El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar said the “critical” issue is federal agents coming into the protective order court, which “creates a tremendous risk for the community.”
Judge Escobar said El Paso, a border town with a significant immigrant population, has garnered a reputation as one of the safest cities of its size in the country because local law enforcement has good relations with documented and undocumented community members.
“This departure from that collaboration and communication we see as very dangerous, and we are already feeling the alarm that is rippling through our very safe community,” Escobar said.
Esparza said it is “not tolerable” for the federal government to come into the county courthouse, especially the protective order court, to make an arrest like this.
“Domestic violence victims take a bold step every time they make an outcry in order to make sure they’re protected,” Esparza said. “So the issue for us here is making sure that the message is clear that in this community you will have access to law enforcement, you will have access to the courthouse.”
Stephanie Karr, executive director of the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence in El Paso, said the center has received several calls from undocumented survivors of domestic violence, asking what will happen to them if they seek a protective order or simply continue to visit the center for assistance.
Karr said it is difficult for any survivor of domestic violence to seek help because of intimidation, coercion and threats, and that undocumented survivors have the additional fear of deportation.
She said she cannot provide the survivors with assurance that this incident was a one-off, though she is telling them that the center and county officials will do “everything in our powers” to make sure they are safe and protected.
“We encourage survivors to reach out to us for help,” Karr said. “While we continue to encourage them to do that, what we are afraid of, as a result of the action in the courthouse, is that those individuals who may gather up enough courage to move forward will now be increasingly reluctant to do so.”
Bernal called such an arrest at the courthouse “unprecedented.”
Bernal called El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who has arranged to meet with ICE officials Friday to discuss the arrest.
“We are hoping that this is an isolated incident,” said Bernal, a Democrat. “We are fearful that it is not. But we feel very strongly … the courthouse is not a place for enforcement of immigration law. The courthouse is a place where victims of domestic violence come for protection.”