Video footage released on Thursday reveals that federal immigration agents entered a Texas courthouse to arrest an undocumented transgender woman seeking a protective order from her allegedly abusive partner.
The footage directly contradicts a sworn affidavit from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents involved in the case. That document says the arrest took place on the street after agents first saw the woman outside the the El Paso County Courthouse on February 9.
The discrepancy is significant because there’s been nationwide concern about how ICE agents chose to handle this case — which could ultimately dissuade other undocumented immigrants from coming forward to seek protection from domestic abuse if they’re fearful of being arrested inside a courthouse.
The woman in question — who is identified with a male name by the Department of Homeland Security, but who is a transgender woman — has filed several police reports against her partner for allegedly punching, choking, and kicking her. She sought a protective order against him after she said he chased her with a knife, and showed up at court for the hearing regarding that order on February 9.
Video footage from that day from El Paso County Courthouse depicts two ICE agents entering the building and going up to the 10th floor, where protective order hearings for domestic violence victims are held. They move off-camera and, about an hour later, re-emerge escorting the undocumented woman to the elevators. They escort her out — one agent keeps his hand on her arm — and lead her to a federal vehicle that’s waiting outside the courthouse.
The video footage confirms the account from El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal, who told multiple local outlets that ICE agents entered the courthouse, sat through the woman’s protective order hearing, and intercepted her in the building after the proceedings ended.
ICE is not supposed to solely use information provided by an abusive partner to make decisions about whether to detain someone. But Bernal also told several outlets she suspects the woman’s boyfriend, who was already in ICE custody, tipped off agents about her court appearance.
According to ICE officials, the woman was arrested for illegally re-entering the United States after she was deported. ICE says she has been deported six times and, in addition to charges for illegal re-entry, has previous convictions related to false imprisonment, domestic violence, assault, and larceny.
Regardless of the woman’s history, local officials are extremely concerned about the way ICE went about this particular arrest.
El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza said on 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.”
In fact, it’s already having a demonstrable impact on the immigrant community. On a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Stephanie Karr, the executive director of El Paso’s Center Against Sexual and Family Violence, said her office has heard from several immigrant clients who are now worried about whether they will be safe and asking what they should do.
The controversial arrest of this woman comes amid nationwide deportation raids that are terrifying immigrants across the country.
ICE has been accused of improperly arresting people in other cases, too. Lawyers for a young man who was arrested last week even though he was granted temporary deportation protection under the Obama administration are accusing federal immigration officials of intentionally altering documents to make it seem like he’s a gang member.