Last week, US immigration officials entered a Texas courthouse and arrested an undocumented, transgender woman after she "had just received a protective order alleging that she was a victim of domestic violence," the El Paso Times reports.
According to the criminal complaint, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents received information on February 2 that Irwin (aka Erwin) Gonzalez, the alleged victim, was residing at the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence in El Paso. Gonzalez had previously been deported six times since 2010 after being arrested for crimes including false imprisonment and assault, and had filed a protective order against her boyfriend Mario Alberto de Avila. Her hearing was scheduled for February 9 at the El Paso County Courthouse.
Border patrol agents said they arrested Gonzalez on the sidewalk outside of the courthouse, but El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal refutes that claim. "There were six ICE agents on the 10th floor," Bernal told the El Paso Times. She also said her office believes Gonzalez's alleged abuser, her live-in boyfriend, tipped off immigration officials.
According to confidentiality provisions provided by the Violence Against Women Act, authorities are not allowed to use information that comes from an abuser to engage in any immigration decision, including enforcement. They also are prohibited from taking any enforcement actions "at a domestic violence shelter; victim services program; family justice center; supervised visitation center; or courthouse if the victim is appearing in connection with a protection order case."
The woman made three police reports late last year, Bernal said, alleging violent acts against her, including being punched, kicked and chased with a knife.
Michelle Ortiz is the deputy director and domestic violence & human trafficking program director for the nonprofit law firm Americans for Immigrant Justice. She says the incident in El Paso is troubling for a number of reasons. "Stories like these will have a chilling, silencing effect on our immigrant communities," she tells Broadly. "All of that work that has been done by advocates and by law enforcement to ensure that victims feel safe to call 911 and feel safe to get a protective order—that could be erased overnight."
"Vulnerable immigrants are going to be even more at risk of violence and exploitation," she continues. "One of the biggest concerns is that, while the Obama administration did engage in record numbers of deportation, there were clear priorities. For victims of violent crime, including victims of domestic violence, there was guidance that they should not be detained or deported. What we're going to see, based on [President Trump's] Interior Enforcement Executive Order, now everybody is a priority, including those who have a right to access our criminal justice system and a right to protections from our local governments."
Moreover, Ortiz says, if immigrants don't feel comfortable reporting crimes in their communities for fear of detention or deportation, "that makes us all less safe."
Since Trump took office, the phones at Americans for Immigrant Justice have been ringing off the hook with calls from scared immigrants, Ortiz says. And it's not just the undocumented who are seeking their services. "Our former clients that already have their green cards or already have their citizenship are calling in a panic because they're concerned that whatever status they have could be taken away from them, or whatever status they have is insufficient to protect them from detention or deportation, as we've seen with the DREAMer who was detained."
"Generally speaking," Ortiz continues, "this is a really bad sign of where this administration's enforcement actions are going. This is a warning sign. Immigration advocates and immigrants need to be prepared that the rules have changed, and we can no longer rely on ICE going after violent criminals. That's clearly not their priority … and everyone is vulnerable, apparently."