A Charlotte woman and her 16-year-old son, who are both involved in a domestic-violence dispute, were arrested in the Mecklenburg courthouse by federal immigration agents after they turned up for a hearing, their attorneys said.
The July 9 arrests by U..S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, or ICE, took place outside a fourth-floor courtroom set aside that day for domestic violence cases. The incident is expected to intensify a debate over where ICE enforcement occurs and who the agency targets.
About 30 supporters of the woman and her son gathered in Marshall Park on Friday to protest their treatment.
Through an interpreter, the mother, identified by her attorneys only by her first name of Maria, described being led handcuffed from the courthouse as “one of the most humiliating and embarrassing experiences” of her life. The Observer does not identify possible victims of domestic violence.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Mecklenburg Assistant Public Defender Herman Little, who witnessed the arrests, told the Observer. “How in the world is anybody going to get justice if both the victims and the defendants are not going to come to court because they’re all afraid of being deported? This is crazy.”
Maria was scheduled to be in court on July 9 as the defendant in a misdemeanor criminal complaint filed by her former fiance. That case had been preceded by a domestic-violence complaint in which the 16-year-old son had accused the former fiance of severely beating him, Little said.
Maria had also taken out a protective order against the man and had moved her family, including a second son who is 2, into a domestic-violence shelter, her attorneys said.
Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather told the Observer his office is investigating the incident. After taking office last year, Merriweather created a special team of prosecutors to handle crimes against families, children and women.
“What I can tell you is that the protection of domestic violence victims is a priority for my office, and any attempt in the courthouse to detain a domestic-violence victim clearly frustrates our ability to protect them,” Merriweather said.
According to Little and Lisa Diefenderfer, an attorney for the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, the mother and son were taken into custody shortly before the son was scheduled to testify against his mother’s ex-fiance.
Diesenderfer said Maria had taken out a civil protective order against the man, and had moved herself and her children into a domestic-violence shelter. She said the man’s complaint against her had no merit and was filed in retaliation.
Maria and her former fiance also are involved in a custody fight over the 2-year-old, Little said.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox told the Observer on Friday that Maria became an immigration target due to a criminal charge filed against her.
“It is not in dispute. This person was not a victim or a witness. That day, she was showing up in the courthouse as a criminal defendant in a criminal case. It’s apples and oranges,” Cox said.
Maria, a native of Colombia, had entered the country legally in August 2016, but her visa expired that November, Cox said.
On the morning of July 9, Little said, District Judge David Strickland agreed to delay the case at which the son was scheduled to testify.
When Little came out of the courtroom to meet with his clients, he said he saw them being handcuffed by two men in plain clothes. Maria was hysterical and calling out for help in Spanish, he said.
“I literally ran up to them,” Little said. “I said, ‘What’s going on?’ (One of the ICE agents) said, ‘Get back, get back,’ and he tells me he doesn’t have to tell me anything. I said, ‘Yes, you do. She’s my client.’ “
Little said the handcuffed pair was rushed through the gathering onlookers and removed from the courthouse. Maria’s 2-year-old son, who was being kept in the courthouse daycare facility, was left behind, he said.
“That walk, being handcuffed like a criminal with my son, was one of the most humiliating and embarrassing experiences I’ve ever endured,” Maria said in Spanish at the Marshall Park rally.
“Having to endure the stares of people around me, around the street, and looking incredibly shocked at us — looking at us as though we were criminals. And that was incredibly painful, because as I was walking, I was leaving my 2-year-old son behind.”
Cox said ICE agents were aware of the little boy and expedited his mother’s arrest. They released her under her own recognizance and then drove her back to the courthouse so she could pick up her child, Cox said.
Kevin Tully, the county’s longtime public defender, said the circumstances surrounding the arrests send a chill through the local criminal-justice system.
“The message is very clear: Come to the courthouse at your own risk of being arrested and caged by the federal government,” Tully said. “If they are victims of crime, their willingness to participate with police, from the outset, is going to disappear.”
Diefenderfer, an immigration lawyer who has worked for the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy for four years, said the fact that the arrests took place outside a domestic-violence courtroom threatens to undermine the trust of particularly vulnerable immigrant crime victims.
“ICE is basically encouraging abusers to run rampant,” said Diefenderfer, one of two Charlotte immigration attorneys now handling Maria’s deportation case. “These women would rather stay in a home where they are beaten and abused than reach out for help and possibly be deported.”
A courthouse spokeswoman said Strickland and the county’s other district court judges would have no comment.
Cox said ICE officers “do not troll courthouses” for undocumented immigrants. Nor does the agency treat courthouses as a “sensitive” location, a designation reserved for schools, hospitals and churches, and immigration arrests in courthouses had triggered a national uproar.
He declined to say how the department’s agents had learned of Maria.
The federal immigration presence in the Mecklenburg courthouse has long been a source of local debate. The county Sheriff’s Office and jail participate in the controversial 287(g) immigration program. Deputies use a federal database to identify jail inmates who are undocumented immigrants. Federal officials then decide whether to start the process of deportation.
The county’s participation in the program became a telling issue in the 2017 sheriff’s election. Incumbent Irwin Carmichael supported the partnership; his two opponents did not. Carmichael lost, and his successor, Garry McFadden, has pledged to end the county’s participation in the program.
In response, ICE has threatened to ramp up enforcement across Charlotte if the local 287(g) program ends.
“The bottom line is, if we’re not able to take these persons into custody in the jail, we have no other choice but to expand ICE resources to go out into the community and look for them and find them ourselves,” Cox told WFAE in May. “And in doing that, it significantly increases the likelihood that we may come across other unlawfully present persons - who weren’t even on our radar - and those persons could be taken into custody as well.”
On the ICE website, the agency says it goes to courthouses in search of those who violate the country’s immigration laws because “many individuals appearing in courthouses are wanted for unrelated criminal or civil violations.”
“ICE’s enforcement activities in these same courthouses are wholly consistent with longstanding law enforcement practices nationwide,” the website says. “Courthouse arrests are often necessitated by the unwillingness of jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the transfer of custody of aliens from their prisons and jails. Further, many of the aliens ICE is targeting have taken affirmative measures to avoid detection by ICE officers.”
Those in courthouses also have passed through security screening to detect weapons, making their arrests safer to ICE agents and the public at large, the website says.
“Anytime there is an arrest made, there is a potential for danger,” he said. “With all the resources they have, why on earth would they choose to put lives at risk in a courthouse?”
In a Friday afternoon statement released by Cox, which identified Maria by her full name and described her as an “unlawfully present Colombian national,” ICE said it “continues to focus its limited resources first and foremost on those who pose the greatest threat to public safety.
“... Any suggestions as to ICE engaging in random or indiscriminate enforcement are categorically false.”
Observer reporter Rachel Jones contributed.