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Undocumented Domestic Violence Victim Detained at the Courthouse After Seeking Protective Order

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Federal agents take an undocumented woman into custody in El, Paso.
Courtesy El Paso County Attorney's Office

An undocumented woman was arrested last week by federal immigration agents in El Paso, Texas, after securing a protective order against her allegedly abusive boyfriend, PEOPLE confirms.

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal confirmed at a news conference Thursday that the woman — whom PEOPLE is not identifying — has been detained since Feb. 9, as she was leaving the county courthouse.

Bernal said agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement received a tip about the woman’s impending hearing against her accused abuser, Mario Alberto De Avila. The woman was taken into custody moments after a judge granted the order, Bernal said.

The tip-off to ICE, Bernal claimed Thursday, likely came from De Avila — who is in jail for allegedly forging financial documents. (It was not immediately clear if he has an attorney who could comment on the accusations against him.)

De Avila was the only other individual who was sent a notice about the Feb. 9 court proceeding, Bernal said. She said the woman had “suffered serious abuse” before successfully seeking the protective order.

“We were stunned that ICE would go to these lengths for someone that is not a violent criminal,” Bernal said.

The woman does not have any outstanding state warrants, Bernal told the Washington Post. But a criminal complaint filed by federal authorities does show she has evaded deportation efforts in the past and been accused of assault and domestic violence, among other crimes.

Acknowledging she has been deported several times before, Bernal said the woman’s arrest record is irrelevant to her detention.

“It is our job to protect victims,” she said at Thursday’s news conference. “We are worried people will stay away from the courthouse, fearing they will be picked up and that they won’t be safe.”

“If that person was that dangerous, state law enforcement would have been looking for her,” Bernal told the Post. “It doesn’t make sense why the resources would be used to go after a victim of domestic abuse.”

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ICE has been stepping up enforcement efforts nationwide in the weeks since President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January. Trump campaigned on a platform of revising major parts of the country’s immigration policy and has already signed multiple executive orders to that effect.

Bernal said Thursday that she and other officials in El Paso are concerned the woman’s arrest will deter undocumented victims of domestic violence from coming forward, for fear of being deported and separated from their children or other family members.

This will force many victims to remain with their abusers, Bernal explained. “A victim of serious abuse is entitled to a protective order and justice whether she has a criminal record or not,” she told NPR.

She said that a federal agent sat through all of last week’s proceeding, blocking one of the exits from the inside. A second agent was standing outside the only other exit in the court room, waiting to arrest the woman.

“As she left, the two agents essentially took our client and escorted her from the jury room to the elevator and escorted her from the court house out onto the street and took her into custody,” Bernal said, noting no one in the legal field she has conferred with about the case “can recall an incident where ICE authorities made their presence known inside a court room — especially one reserved for victims of domestic violence.”

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The woman’s criminal complaint says federal agents took her into custody once she left the courthouse, conflicting with Bernal’s account.

Calls Thursday to ICE were not returned.

Bernal told reporters that El Paso officials will be meeting with federal authorities on Friday to discuss the arrest and ICE’s future enforcement efforts in the city.

The woman is being held in the El Paso County Jail under a federal detainer, Bernal said.