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Death by Deportation After ICE Arrest in a County Courthouse

by Lou Dubose

Dec 1, 2017 | Immigration, Politics


Juan Coronilla-Guerrero’s body was found on the side of a road in southern Mexico on September 13. His death could have been just one more data point in a country ravaged by gang violence, where brutal assassinations are common. Yet the tragic end of Coronilla-Guerrero’s life was covered by U.S. media outlets because, to borrow from a García Márquez title, it was a “chronicle of a death foretold.”

In February, Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife told a federal judge in Austin that if her husband were deported, he would be killed by members of the gangs the couple had fled Mexico to escape. It turned out that she was right.

Coronilla-Guerrero’s story was also newsworthy—outside of Texas, eight local network TV news affiliates covered it, as did Televisa, Univision, The Washington Post, and The Miami Herald—because of the way in which he came to be deported. On March 3, Coronilla-Guerrero and his attorney showed up at the Travis County courthouse in downtown Austin for a preliminary hearing on two misdemeanor charges. Inside the courthouse, he was stalked by two Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, cornered, and taken into custody.

His arrest was the first reported account of agents detaining a criminal defendant in a Texas courthouse, although weeks earlier, six ICE agents had arrested a woman in the lobby of the El Paso County courthouse after she appeared before a judge to request the court’s protection from an abusive domestic partner. In a chilling courthouse video obtained by The El Paso Times, agents dressed in jeans and sweatshirts are seen following the woman as she walks out of a tenth-floor courtroom, then grabbing her arm before she leaves the building—although, according to the arrest report, she was taken into custody on the street.

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal told The El Paso Times that the woman’s alleged abuser, who was already in custody, probably provided ICE with the details of his partner’s court date—a sobering warning to domestic-violence victims and advocacy groups that an alleged perpetrator can manipulate the system to eliminate (deport) his victim and accuser.

But the woman grabbed by ICE in El Paso’s county courthouse is alive—as far as we know. Juan Coronilla-Guerrero, father of two, never saw his 29th birthday.

Missing from the nationwide spot-news coverage of Coronilla-Guerrero’s death was a lot of context. He was deported because Trump administration officials ordered a retaliatory immigration-enforcement crackdown in Austin, in response to an elected Democratic sheriff who declared Travis County a “sanctuary,” thus making the state capital the only “sanctuary city” in Texas.

The politics driving the Trump administration’s retributive immigration policy were revealed when Coronilla-Guerrero appeared in federal court on charges of reentering the United States. During the court proceeding, U.S. magistrate Judge Andrew Austin observed that he had been warned by Trump administration officials that Austin could expect enhanced enforcement.

He was, in fact, precise: at the end of January, Trump administration officials had told him that ICE agents were “coming in from out of town” for a “specific operation” that was a “result of the sheriff’s new policy.” Coronilla-Guerrero was a victim of the targeted enhanced-enforcement operation ordered by Trump administration officials.

Coronilla-Guerrero’s attorney, Daniel Betts, described a chaotic courthouse encounter that seemed to turn reality inside out.

Betts was aware of the ongoing immigration sweeps, which we reported in April, and told his client that there might be agents at the courthouse. But the attorney also said he believed Coronilla-Guerrero was probably not at risk because ICE usually avoids conducting operations inside courthouses.

Coronilla-Guerrero, Betts said, wasn’t even required to be present for the preliminary hearing, but was cooperative and wanted to resolve the two misdemeanor charges he faced: possession of one one-hundredth of an ounce of marijuana and a family violence charge.

“I saw the agents and tried to spirit him out the back door,” Betts said. “But they followed him to the elevator.”

Betts then desperately looked for a deputy sheriff to take Coronilla-Guerrero into custody and get him into a county jail cell, where the sheriff’s sanctuary policy would protect him from detention by ICE agents. Before the attorney could save his client, two agents cornered him and took him into custody.

Juan Coronilla-Guerrero might not have been a model citizen, but nor was he one of Donald Trump’s “bad hombres.” Betts was in the process of getting the marijuana charged dismissed. The family violence charge, he said, fell into a category that didn’t necessarily involve physical violence. And apparently a neighbor, not Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife, had called the police to complain about the domestic dispute that resulted in the arrest.

“He was affable, friendly, smiling, very easy to get along with,” Betts said. “He didn’t strike me as a violent guy.”

Coronilla-Guerrero had been deported previously, so his reentry into the country made him both deportable and subject to criminal prosecution.

“His primary goal was to go back to his wife and kids in Austin. So I had to navigate a few things, keep him out of jail and out of contact with ICE,” Betts said. At the time Coronilla-Guerrero was detained, he was out free on bond.

Betts didn’t represent Coronilla-Guerrero on the illegal reentry charges in federal court, which followed his detention by ICE agents, but the case was resolved with a conviction on Coronilla-Guerrero’s record and credit for time served while awaiting trial. He was immediately deported.

“I would say ‘devastated’ describes how I felt when I heard what happened in Mexico,” Betts said.

Does this violation of what was traditionally a safe space portend a shift in policy? During the hearing in federal court, the magistrate judge asked an ICE agent who was testifying if “we are going to continue to have arrests like this one [in a courthouse]” and “in general, whether we can expect more arrests, more prosecutions, than we were seeing prior to this?”

The agent began to respond—“I would just say based off the new administration and their priorities, them doing away with the prior administration’s”— when he was stopped mid-sentence.

“He can’t talk about that right now,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Marshall said. “I don’t want him getting into trouble.”

If the question regarding arrests in courtrooms has yet to be answered, the practice is unlikely to end.

Since Trump took office, ICE courthouse arrests have been reported in Vermont, New York, Michigan, California, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, as well as Texas, according to The Washington Post and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Many of the detentions have not involved immigrants charged with crimes.

In Michigan, a father was arrested while filing for custody of his child; in Brooklyn, another father was arrested after he appeared at a child support hearing; a Vermont dairy worker was arrested before he could make it to a court hearing on a noncriminal matter.

In March, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then–Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly.

“Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws,” the chief justice said.

“Enforcement policies that include stalking courthouses and arresting undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom pose no risk to public safety, are neither safe nor fair.… I respectfully request that you refrain from this sort of enforcement in California’s courthouses.”

ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice respectfully said no.

The agents, she said, are targeting criminals, and were working in courthouses because of “sanctuary” policies by California cities and counties restricting local law enforcement cooperation with immigration officials.

On September 25, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans allowed the state of Texas to move ahead with a controversial law that outlaws “sanctuary cities,” compels local law enforcement officials to place holds on immigrants in county and city jails, and allows police officers to ask about immigration status upon detainment.

In the last week of September, ICE agents rounded up 500 undocumented immigrants in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., cities not fully cooperating with Trump’s immigration policies, where an ICE spokesperson said its “agents were denied access to jails.”

In early October, when California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that prohibits state and local officials from assisting in Trump’s stepped-up crackdowns on immigrants, ICE responded with sweeps in the state’s big cities. And acting ICE Director Tom Homan threatened that there will be a greater enforcement presence in immigrant neighborhoods.

It is now open season on undocumented immigrants in American courtrooms, particularly in states and counties that try to provide some degree of sanctuary in courtrooms, jails, schools, and hospitals. And as we have learned from the case of Juan Coronilla-Guerrero, some who are deported will inevitably be sent home to their deaths.

Lou Dubose is The Washington Spectator’s Senior Political Writer.

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