In the early hours of Feb. 9, B. Rojas walked down the stairs from his third-floor apartment on East Riverside and got in his car, as he does every weekday. Usually, Rojas (whose family requested anonymity) warms up the car and waits until his five children come downstairs and pile in so he can drive them to school before heading to his construction job as a carpenter.
But Feb. 9 was different. On his way downstairs, Rojas spotted a few non-uniformed men on the first floor, but thought nothing of it. As he readied the car, another vehicle pulled up right beside him. U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers asked him if he had documentation to be in the country legally. Rojas, an undocumented resident, replied honestly. ICE agents pushed him against his car, pulled him to the ground, and arrested him; he did not resist. From the window above, his children had to watch helplessly.
"They are taking the father of my kids, and it's not fair," Rojas' wife told the Chronicle in her native Spanish. "I don't want to see my kids cry every day. They wake up every night and ask, 'Where is my dad?' and I don't know what to do. He has done all the right things; he works every day, he doesn't drink. I think that those people should be given an opportunity to be here for their kids, for their family. They don't need him in Mexico, his kids need him here."
Rojas came to Austin in 1996 from Guanajuato, Mexico. She said her 10-year-old son has developed problems at school because he begs his teachers to "take him to the police" so that he may be reunited with his dad. "My kids are suffering," she pleaded.
Her husband was one of the 51 swept up in the Austin-area ICE raids conducted in February, and among the 28 of those who had no criminal records. In its wake, the local undocumented community grappled with the realization of broken families and fear of federal agents, while also finding the strength to protest and publicize their opposition to the crackdown ("Undocumented, Unafraid," March 10). Still reeling from that first wave of arrests, the community was again beset on March 3 when ICE reportedly targeted the Travis County courthouse, a new and chilling strategy for the federal agents. Officials arrested Juan Coronilla-Guerrero, who came to the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center to resolve two charges: one for a misdemeanor assault (family violence) and another for marijuana possession. Coronilla-Guerrero was one of 36 immigrants released by Sheriff Sally Hernandez after she enacted a new policy that restricts full cooperation with ICE detainer requests.
"[E]ven though he had an immigration order, he wanted to do the right thing and he appeared at his second court date," Coronilla-Guerrero's wife (who also requested her first name not be used) said in a statement. "When he was leaving, immigration agents were waiting for him and took him. He didn't even get to say goodbye to me, or to his son, because now we don't even know where he is going to be." Coronilla-Guerrero also claimed that the $1,300 in rent money her husband had in his wallet when arrested was no longer there after his belongings were returned to her.
A witness said ICE agents (at least initially) didn't notify the courthouse of their arrival, wore plainclothes, and refused to provide names or badge numbers to attorneys. "It strikes me as extraordinary that ICE would come into a courthouse to apprehend my client," said Daniel Betts, Coronilla-Guerrero's lawyer. "The irony is that he was in court to avoid problems with immigration by resolving his misdemeanor offense."
City Council members responded to the strategy, saying that enforcement activity at the courthouse harms overall public safety. "This will have a chilling effect on our judicial branch of government's ability to operate effectively," said CM Greg Casar. "Because of actions like this, people will fear going to court dates as victims, witnesses, or defendants. When families live in fear, we all lose." CM Delia Garza noted her previous work as an assistant attorney general in the state's Child Support Division, and said, "ICE's presence in our courthouses will harm any trust our immigrant families place in the court system. If families are fearful of attending any required court appearances, they could face dire consequences like losing custody of their children or obtaining a restraining order from an abusive spouse."
When state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, heard of Coronilla-Guerrero's arrest, his staff worked to obtain more information from the U.S. Attorney's Office. Rodriguez told the Chronicle that while ICE "acted within its authority" in executing the federal criminal arrest warrant, as Coronilla-Guerrero has been subject to a criminal complaint charging him with re-entry after deportation, the agency also showed "callous disregard for the climate of fear" in local immigrant communities by picking him up inside of the courthouse. "I am confident that if the federal government has the resources to arrest and detain individuals with no criminal history, ICE can find a way to execute arrest warrants without undermining the integrity of and limiting access to our criminal justice system," Rodriguez said.
Since the 28 non-criminal ("collateral," as ICE frames it) arrests in February, local leaders and organizations have sought to find out if the disproportionate arrests were political payback for Hernandez's change in policy. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt met with local ICE agent Dan Bible on Feb. 24, and others, including District Attorney Margaret Moore, have been in contact with him, also. Eckhardt said that some points of common interest were reached during the meeting, though it was clear that ICE did not share the county's concerns regarding collateral arrests or the expected chilling effect on immigrant participation with law enforcement or the courts. "Mr. Bible denied political retribution and asserted that ICE has not made any changes to its approach," Eckhardt reported. "I think the volume of field arrests and the percentage of those arrests that were collateral to ICE's target contradicts his assertion."
No longer prioritizing dangerous misdemeanants and felons, it appears ICE considers no approach to identifying, locating, and detaining undocumented individuals "off the table," said Eckhardt, adding that agents will pursue whatever approach is "most direct and involves the least procedural steps." She's currently investigating whether there have been prior instances of ICE making arrests inside courthouses.
Isabella Castro-Cota contributed reporting to this story.
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