AUSTIN (KXAN) — An Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent arrested an undocumented man at the Travis County Courthouse on Friday, something attorneys tell KXAN they have never seen before at the courthouse.
The man who was arrested, Juan Carlos Coronilla-Guerrero, 27, had previously been released from custody on Feb. 1, when the county’s new immigration policy went into effect.
City Council members Greg Casar and Delia Garza said in a joint statement that the presence of ICE officials in a courthouse “harms our overall public safety.” They continued, “This will have a chilling effect on our judicial branch of government’s ability to operate effectively,” explaining that people will fear going to court dates as victims, witnesses or defendants.
“When families live in fear, we all lose,” the council members said. Garza says families who are fearful of attending scheduled court appearances could face “dire consequences” like losing custody of their children or obtaining a restraining order from an abusive spouse.
A statement from U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, said the congressman supports ICE’s actions. “I support the right of immigration officials to enforce the law and apprehend and deport illegal immigrants who have committed crimes. In this instance, the individual had been charged with an assault of a family member and possession of illegal drugs. The courthouse should not be a sanctuary for those who have broken the law.”
Coronilla-Guerrero was arrested in January on charges of assault causing injury — family violence and possession of less than two ounces of marijuana. The man, who has not been convicted, was scheduled for a pre-trial hearing Friday.
His attorney, Daniel Betts, says Coronilla-Guerrero was not required to appear in court Friday, but was there to try to move the case through faster. “I made a calculation that it would be best to minimize the potential contact with the criminal justice system as those might be potential contacts with ICE, and didn’t anticipate this happening, but this is what happened.”
Defense attorneys say the move could be crippling to the criminal justice system.
“I was afraid for my clients, and I was afraid that this is the first step, and oh my God. What’s next?” attorney Julie Pennington said.
Pennington told KXAN she heard about ICE agenda coming to courthouses in other parts of the country, but saw no indication of that in Austin. That all changed Friday morning.
“We’ve been encouraging our clients to continue to comply with their bond conditions, to come to their court dates and to comply with the judge’s orders. Now, we can’t say that,” she said.
Pennington says the move fuels fear, that could prevent victims and even witnesses from coming to court, hindering the criminal justice system’s ability to prosecute.
“It also hinders people’s ability to come back and fight for themselves, and advocate for themselves to eventually be acquitted of the charges that they’re facing,” Pennington said.
The risk is leaving attorneys faced with the burden of whether to advise their clients to appear in court. Pennington says now, more than ever, there is a need for defense and immigration attorneys to come together to navigate the system and what could be a “new normal.”
Undocumented immigrants and their advocates have taken part in protests nationwide in recent weeks as ICE operations nationwide have netted hundreds of arrests, with 51 arrests in Austin.