As It Happens

'Very unsettling': U.S. immigration officials arrest domestic abuse victim in court

U.S. immigration officials arrested a woman in an El Paso, Texas, courthouse last week moments after she was granted a restraining order. El Paso assistant county attorney Lucila Flores Camarena worries this will have a "chilling effect" for victims of domestic violence.
People in New York City protest U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration policy and the recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids across the country. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

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U.S. immigration officials arrested a woman in an El Paso, Texas, courthouse last week moments after she was granted a restraining order against an abusive partner — a move justice officials fear will embolden abusers and silence victims. 

"I've practiced law for 18 years, most of those years dealing with domestic violence, and I've never seen anything like this before," Lucila Flores Camarena, the head of El Paso County Attorney's Protective Order Unit, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann on Friday. "It was very disconcerting, very unsettling."

"I've practiced law for 18 years, most of those years dealing with domestic violence, and I've never seen anything like this before.'-  Lucila   Flores   Camarena , El Paso assistant county attorney 

Camarena, who was in the courthouse when it happened, worries the arrest will create a "chilling effect" for undocumented domestic abuse victims who are afraid to go to police.

"When you work with this particular population, you try to reassure them all the time, and this doesn't help," she said. 

Attorney Lucila Flores Camarena says the arrest of an undocumented immigrant who was in court seeking a restraining order against her partner is unprecedented and dangerous. (El Pasco County Attorney's Office)

She says she can no longer confidently assure her clients they will be safe if they come forward. What's more, she said, the arrest puts power in the hands of abusers who use their victims' undocumented statuses to control them.

"That is a very real threat that batterers use, especially in cities along the border, like El Paso," she said. "They keep them in these abusive relationships by threatening to have them deported."

Camarena can't say for sure, but she suspects the accused in this case may have tipped off immigration officials that his partner would be in court. That's because he was sent the same documents and would have known she would be there that day.

U.S.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a statement it was acting on a tip from another law enforcement agency, without addressing the apprehension that started in the domestic violence court.

The woman has a criminal history and had been previously deported, ICE said. El Paso county officials said there were no outstanding warrants against her. 

The arrest has drawn the condemnation of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and El Paso's Democratic congressman Beto O'Rourke. 

County officials are meeting ICE on Friday to express their concerns.

State of fear

The arrest comes amid a crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the U.S., which saw more than 680 people detained in a half-dozen states last week.

These arrests include a 23-year-old Seattle man who was working legally in the country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and an Arizona mother who has been checking in regularly with immigration authorities for eight years.

In Colorado, a mother of four skipped her routine check-in last week out of fear of being arrested and has taken refuge in a local church.

ICE officers detain a suspect as they conduct a targeted enforcement operation in Los Angeles on Feb. 7, 2017. Hundreds of people were swept up in U.S. immigration raids last week. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via Reuters)

Maru Mora Villalpando, an activist and undocumented immigrant in Tacoma, Wash., told As It Happens earlier this week there is a heightened state of fear among those living in the U.S. illegally. 

"We have prepared for a really long time for these kind of situations, and what we're trying to do is to help the rest of our community not to live in fear but to actually resist and fight back," she said.

With files from Reuters

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