Federal agents on Friday arrested an immigrant suspected of being in the country illegally at Travis County’s courthouse in what appears to be a new tactic by immigration officials.
Defense attorney Daniel Betts confirmed to the American-Statesman that his client, Juan Coronilla-Guerrero, was taken into custody when he showed up for a court appearance for two misdemeanor charges, assault-family violence and possession of marijuana. He said Coronilla-Guerrero was arrested in an elevator at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center.
Coronilla-Guerrero was one of more than 30 immigrants at the Travis County Jail who were released in early February after Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez implemented a new policy that greatly limited cooperation with detention requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Travis County has had an increasingly strained relationship with ICE in recent weeks over Hernandez’s refusal to grant the majority of those requests — the sheriff only holds inmates for federal immigration checks if they are charged with one of four serious felony crimes.
The courthouse arrest reignited concerns about ICE operations in the Austin area and whether federal immigration agents would begin using the court system as a net for people who might in the country illegally.
It also came at the end of the week when a handful of local officials met with ICE to ask if Austin is being targeted for extra enforcement because of the sheriff’s policy, which led Gov. Greg Abbott to withhold $1.5 million in grant money from Travis County earlier this year.
“We need agreement from ICE that administration of criminal justice is presumed to be a higher purpose than administration of immigration justice,” Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. “We need to get agreement on a protocol with ICE to inform the judge, prosecution and defense in advance so that we can balance these competing interests of justice.”
In mid-February, ICE agents conducted a major operation in the Austin area that led to the arrests of 51 people — 28 of whom were deemed “non-criminals” by the immigration agency, meaning they had no criminal record. Others had convictions that ranged from drunken driving to homicide.
Officials said agents didn’t announce their presence at the courthouse Friday or notify the judge presiding over Coronilla-Guerrero’s case of their intentions.
“It struck me as extraordinary,” said Betts, who added that Coronilla-Guerrero was in court expressly to resolve the misdemeanor charges so he wouldn’t run into problems with immigration enforcement. “I told my client a week and a half ago that I didn’t think ICE would be at the courts, but we see how that turned out.”
Federal court documents show that Coronilla-Guerrero was deported from the U.S. in 2008. On Friday, agents filed a federal charge of illegal re-entry against him; the U.S. attorney’s office asked that he be held without bail.
Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife decried the arrest.
“He wanted to do the right thing, and he appeared at his second court date,” said Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife, who wished to remain anonymous because she fears reprisals from immigration officials. “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, 26, was at the court for a routine pretrial appearance, Betts said. While in the courtroom, attorney George Lobb spotted two men in plainclothes whom he recognized as ICE agents. When he approached the men, they showed him paperwork indicating that they intended to detain Coronilla-Guerrero.
Lobb later notified Betts that the agents were waiting for his client outside the court. Betts told Coronilla-Guerrero to wait inside, but the Mexico native stepped out to make a phone call while waiting for his case to come up, Betts said.
Coronilla-Guerrero was standing near the agents, but neither of them made a move to detain him, according to Betts, who said he directed his client toward the elevator, which both agents also boarded.
Betts said when they hit the ground floor, one of the agents exited the elevator and, in an attempt to lose the ICE agents, Betts told his client that they needed to go back up to the third floor. Betts then tried to tell the remaining ICE agent that he needed to get off the elevator if he wanted to stay with the other agent.
It was then that the agent put handcuffs on Coronilla-Guerrero, Betts said.
In an email to Eckhardt, retired Travis County state District Judge Jon Wisser — who was substituting on the bench Friday when Coronilla-Guerrero made his appearance — wrote that he was unaware a defendant had been taken into custody until after he was notified by Betts.
“We had 260 cases set this morning, so it was quite chaotic,” he wrote.
“I have talked to various judges today, and no one can remember this type of occurrence ever happening with ICE agents before — though constables and deputies do sometimes arrest people at the courthouses on outstanding warrants when they are here on other matters,” state District Judge Amy Clark Meachum said. “But they have always done so (as far as I am aware) with first notifying the sheriff’s department and the judge with what is happening.”
She wrote that she and other judges are hoping to meet with criminal court judges and Hernandez to “determine how we want to handle this in the future. We have to assume ICE is going to show up again.”
Assistant County Attorney Dan Hamre said prosecutors will review Coronilla-Guerrero’s case in coming days to determine whether they want to try to get him back in county custody from ICE to move forward with the case. They will consider the strength of the evidence and the “impact on the community, victim and justice — all those issues,” he said.
In the meantime, the case “will remain pending. I don’t know what kind of federal warrant he was picked up on,” Hamre said.