A few hours after immigration officials took the rare step of arresting an immigrant at a Travis County courthouse, a network of taxpayer-funded attorneys advised its members that it had two locations where they could take their clients, in case the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up again.
Some attorneys who work with the Capital Area Private Defender Service say the email they received March 3 amounted to their employer suggesting they evade state and federal law.
The memo, sent by director of holistic defense Kathryn Dyer, presents an “alternative plan for safety,” if “ICE agents are near the courtroom,” urging attorneys to take clients to the defender service’s offices on the courthouse’s seventh floor or at the nearby Brizendine House.
There has been no word of additional ICE arrests at the courthouse since that Friday two weeks ago, and the defender service says no attorneys took clients to the offices.
But the memo shines light on a potential conflict for attorneys with obligations to serve clients but also to abide by laws against harboring immigrants who are in the country illegally. In Texas, hindering apprehension or prosecution in some cases is a third-degree felony punishable by two to 12 years in prison.
In a string of emails obtained by the American-Statesman, several defense lawyers who are members of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association raised concerns about the memo, fearing that if they followed the defender service’s advice, they risk incarceration alongside the very clients they might try to protect.
“ICE might make trouble for lawyers who ICE observes (and maybe even photographs) assisting a fugitive escape from apprehension,” attorney Skip Davis warned. “I don’t put anything past these federal officers.”
Another attorney, Chito Vela, told the Statesman he wants to protect clients, but at what cost?
“I’m concerned for my client first and foremost, but I’m concerned for myself as well,” Vela said. “Any attorney that represents undocumented clients, there’s going to be difficult questions asked and there are going to be difficult circumstances encountered.”
The following Monday, March 6, the defender service issued a clarification from Executive Director Ira Davis: “Our email was intended to remind you that we are available to counsel you and your clients on the immigration consequences of their cases, what to expect from or plan for with regard to immigration proceedings, and not to suggest that CAPDS or any attorney engage in some extralegal plan to subvert any lawful process.”
Tension was already high in Austin’s Latino community when the two plainclothes ICE agents showed up at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center on March 3.
The agents first went to the civil courthouse before realizing their target, Juan Coronilla-Guerrero, was next door at the criminal courthouse appearing on misdemeanor charges for assault-family violence and possession of marijuana. Coronilla-Guerrero had been previously deported in 2008, court records show.
The officers checked in with the bailiff in the courtroom and then followed Coronilla-Guerrero, 26, out of court and onto the elevator, according to his attorney, Daniel Betts. Once the elevator reached the bottom floor, Betts told his client they needed to go back up to the third floor to take care of a matter, in what the attorney would later say was an effort to lose the officers. But one of the officers immediately placed handcuffs on Coronilla-Guerrero.
That arrest came just weeks after ICE conducted a four-day operation in Austin that resulted in the detention of 51 undocumented immigrants, most of whom had no criminal history. The crackdown was viewed by many as retaliation from the government over Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s policy to refuse most of the requests from ICE to hold inmates for additional time in jail for federal immigration checks.
ICE officials have called the arrests in Austin routine; records show the Austin activity was part of a national enforcement operation that also took place in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Atlanta.
State District Judge Brenda Kennedy, the county’s presiding criminal judge, said that, based on further investigation of the incident, ICE agents followed the same protocol as all law enforcement officers when they arrested Coronilla-Guerrero at the courthouse.
Although some officials feared that they had conducted a surprise visit, Kennedy said the agents had notified Travis county prosecutors — as well as the bailiff — of their intent to arrest Coronilla-Guerrero.
“There was nothing out of the course for the arrest in our building,” she said. “I think it’s the environment we are in, and what was going on at the time caused a lot of alarm.”
She said the ICE agents’ brief appearance at the civil courthouse had that stirred concerns that ICE was going to begin showing up unannounced to proceedings in family law and probate courts.
Kristen Dark, a spokeswoman for the sheriff, said although deputies at the county’s courthouses are there to provide security, “we will not impede other law enforcement agencies from serving a warrant.”
Striking a balance
This week, the defender service held a brown-bag seminar at the courthouse called “Immigration: Detection and Detention — representing non-citizen clients.” The nonprofit, which is funded mostly by the state, hired a full-time immigration attorney in November to assist defense attorneys.
Asked about the defender service’s initial directive, Selena Alvarenga, president of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association issued a statement: “ACDLA stands by the principle that we as criminal defense attorneys have a constitutional and professional duty to fully advise our clients about the law surrounding their cases, including any possible immigration-related consequences.
“We acknowledge that there is a clear line between providing such advice, and recommending that our clients violate the law. As such, ACDLA does not support interfering with federal ICE agents’ legal apprehension of defendants suspected of having violated immigration laws, and our organization is not aware of any of our member attorneys, nor anyone else in the defense community, behaving in such a manner.”
Attorney George Lobb, who spotted the ICE agents at the courthouse on March 3, said that since then he has seen them at the courthouse once — last week, when he spied two agents getting into a minivan outside.
“What were they doing there, I don’t know,” Lobb said.
Betts, who represented Coronilla-Guerrero on the assault and marijuana charges, said he has developed his own method for dodging ICE officials, and it’s perfectly legal. A court docket makes it easy for ICE to know the date and time a defendant is due in court, so Betts has begun throwing them off by handling matters on different days than those that are posted.
“That’s something I feel a little more comfortable doing rather than secreting a person to the Brizendine House,” Betts said.