A woman arrested by immigration officials at a Texas courthouse where she sought protection from domestic violence is set to find out whether she will be indicted by a grand jury for illegal re-entry to the US.
Irvin Gonzalez has been held in the El Paso County jail since being held on 9 February by federal agents moments after being granted a protective order by a judge. The case prompted a national outcry, with women’s rights advocates arguing that the arrest risks discouraging undocumented people in violent situations from contacting law enforcement for help.
Advocates are particularly outraged by the contrast with her American ex-boyfriend, who had received a light sentence despite being convicted of international drugs trafficking.
The grand jury meets on Wednesdays, with an indictment against the 33-year-old expected to be made public either this week or next. Even if Gonzalez is not indicted she is likely to be detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) and to face deportation.
She could argue that she qualifies for a visa available to victims of domestic violence, and that as a transgender woman it would be dangerous for her to return to Mexico, said her immigration attorney, Melissa Untereker. “There would be possible defences in front of an immigration judge,” she said.
However, Untereker described her prospects as “an uphill battle”. Gonzalez has previously been removed from the US half a dozen times and has a criminal history, making her a likely target for deportation given the Trump administration’s hardline position on unauthorised immigrants who are merely suspected of committing crimes, let alone charged or convicted.
The extraordinary circumstances of Gonzalez’s arrest suggest that agents feel newly emboldened to act harshly even towards undocumented people in especially vulnerable positions.
Gonzalez’s ex-partner Mario de Avila was accused in August 2015 of importing 39kg of marijuana into the US from Mexico with the intent to distribute, court records show. He was caught by a sniffer dog during a secondary inspection of his truck at a border crossing in El Paso, and 80 bundles of marijuana were discovered within doors and side panels.
That November, he struck a plea bargain and pleaded guilty to importation of a controlled substance, the North American Congress on Latin America reported. In January 2016 he received a prison sentence of time already served and two years of supervised release. He returned to custody after being arrested in January for financial forgery, then again in February for violating the conditions of his probation, which was maintained last year even though Gonzalez filed three police reports alleging that De Avila punched, kicked, choked and threw a knife at her.
Federal prosecutors on Tuesday filed an amended criminal complaint against Gonzalez which claims she “was the head of a money order [name-] washing scheme … which involved both Gonzalez and Gonzalez’ partner, Mario de Avila, stealing mail from blue US Post Office drop-off boxes”. The allegation came as a surprise to her attorneys.
The amended affidavit states that agents decided to apprehend her at her court hearing rather than the shelter where she was staying: “Because Gonzalez was residing at the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence, and not at Gonzalez’ residence, it was determined that the best opportunity to locate Gonzalez would be after the hearing.”
The original criminal complaint does not mention that agents went into the courthouse and states that the woman was taken into custody on the street, but video footage shows her being apprehended inside.
The revised document indicates that officers set up surveillance outside the courthouse in an attempt to arrest Gonzalez on her way in but failed to spot her. They entered the building and sat in the courtroom to identify her before escorting her outside.
Gonzalez and county officials believe that the agents acted after a tip-off from her alleged abuser. Ice said it had received “a tip from another law enforcement agency”. The affidavit claims that during an interview about the money-order fraud scheme, Gonzalez told local police and the US postal inspector’s office that she had a protective order hearing on 9 February.
Yet, Untereker said, Gonzalez “maintains that she didn’t say anything about the protective order to anyone but her caseworker. It’s sort of a mystery as far as where they’re getting their information.”
The attorney said that Gonzalez was upset and suffering negative physical effects after being denied her hormone therapy treatment while in jail, but was given a dose on Tuesday for the first time since her arrest.
According to a court filing on her behalf, De Avila “had repeatedly threatened to have her deported if she reported his abuse to the police and told her that they would believe him over her because he was a US citizen”.
The arrest “emboldens the message of many abusers in domestic violence situations or abusive employers or traffickers, folks like that who have made the argument to survivors that if they seek help they will be deported or jailed,” said Sameera Hafiz of the We Belong Together immigrant rights campaign.
“We were planning to have a retreat of survivors of trafficking to create a space for them to gather and build relationships and foster healing, and our delegation from El Paso actually was too frightened to even come to the retreat because they are just afraid of even moving around in the community after they heard about what happened.”
Another Texas detainee, Sara Beltran Hernandez, an undocumented Salvadoran woman with a brain tumour, is expected to post bond and be freed on Thursday so she can live with her family in New York while her asylum case is ongoing.
The 26-year-old mother of two had been detained since crossing the Texas-Mexico border in November 2015, but began feeling seriously ill last month. She was taken to a hospital where doctors found a large, benign tumour next to her brain that may require surgery in the future – but was returned to custody.
Her family and advocates said that she was not receiving adequate medical care in the private detention facility and worried that her condition was deteriorating. Arguing that she should not be considered a flight risk given her illness, her attorney successfully sought her release on bond in federal immigration court.