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ICE Arrest At Domestic Violence Hearing Raises Concerns Of Chilling Effect

Mecklenburg County Courthouse.
North Carolina Courts

Immigrant advocates are criticizing the actions of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Charlotte earlier this month, after they arrested a woman and her 16-year-old son at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.  

Maria — whose lawyer asked that she only be referred to by her first name— and her son were arrested on July 9 on the fourth floor of the courthouse and led away in handcuffs. The two were at the courthouse in connection with a domestic violence case involving the woman’s former fiancé, who had filed a misdemeanor complaint against Maria. A previous complaint against the ex-fiancé alleged that he had beaten the teenager.

The Charlotte Observer reports that Maria was granted a protective order against her ex-fiancé and had moved herself, her teenage son and her other two-year-old son, to a domestic violence shelter. Her youngest son had been in the courthouse daycare at the time of the arrest, and remained there for six hours while Maria and her teenage son were in ICE custody.

ICE said Maria had legally entered the country in 2016 but had overstayed her visa. ICE spokesman Brian Cox said agents exercised the “minimum handling” necessary in detaining her.

“She was not taken to an ICE detention center,” Cox said. “She was in ICE custody the minimum amount of time necessary to do the paperwork processing, and not only did ICE then release her on her own recognizance, but those officers drove her back to the courthouse so she wouldn’t have to get herself back to where she started.”

Maria’s lawyer, Lisa Diefenderfer, with the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, called the arrest a “shocking ordeal” during an interview with “All Things Considered” host Ari Shapiro Monday. Diefenderfer said the charges filed against Maria by her former fiancé were going to be dismissed the day she was arrested by ICE. She also said Maria’s son was at the courthouse solely to bear witness in the case when he too was arrested.

“It’s important to note that her son in no way has a criminal record or was [at the courthouse] under any criminal record,” Diefenderfer said. “He was there solely as a witness to testify against the abuser who attacked him and his mother.”

Credit Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy
Lisa Diefenderfer, attorney with the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy.

Diefenderfer said Maria’s arrest is likely to discourage other domestic violence victims from going to police.

“My office has worked with domestic violence victims for years and any time there is large ICE activity, whether it’s a big enforcement action or even after the last presidential election, we see a dip in the number of individuals seeking help for domestic violence issues,” she said.

But, Diefenderfer said, victims should still step forward even if they’re afraid of being detained by ICE because their physical safety is top priority.

“I would still [tell victims] ‘please please please call the police. You are severely limiting your options, immigration or otherwise, if you do not do so,’” she said.

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said his office is still investigating Maria’s case. But he said even the possibility of a domestic violence victim being arrested by ICE when they come to court is worrisome, and could have a chilling effect on victims coming forward.

It is hard enough to make sure that victims of domestic violence feel safe enough to remain engaged with the court system – that’s already a challenge,” Merriweather said. “Documented or not, it’s extremely important for all of us to make sure that people feel safe to report domestic violence crimes.”

Maria and her son were released the same day of her arrest, but are in the midst of removal proceedings and will have to appear before a federal immigration judge.                                                                                

Mark Rumsey grew up in Kansas and got his first radio job at age 17 in the town of Abilene, where he announced easy-listening music played from vinyl record albums.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Jessa O’Connor was an assistant digital news editor and Sunday reporter for WFAE.