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Texas county officials decry immigration arrest at domestic violence court

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Federal agents crossed a line by going into an El Paso family court to take a transgender woman who was the victim of domestic violence into custody for suspected immigration law violations, county officials said on Thursday.

The arrest last week had a chilling effect on victims of domestic abuse in the Texas border city who turn to law enforcement for help that could save their lives, they said.

County officials will be meeting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Friday to let them know their concerns.

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"We are hoping that this is an isolated incident. We are fearful that it is not. This courthouse should be a place where people come for protection," El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal told a teleconference.

The case comes in the wake of a crackdown on illegal immigration by new U.S. President Donald Trump. U.S. immigration officers last week arrested more than 680 people they said were in the country illegally in a broad enforcement action that alarmed immigrant rights groups.

ICE said in a statement it was acting on a tip from another law enforcement agency, without addressing the apprehension that started in the domestic violence court. The suspect it identified as Irvin Gonzalez has a criminal history and had been previously deported, it said.

The suspect had been beaten several times by her partner and had just been granted a restraining order, the county officials said.

An ICE agent followed the suspect into the court and then, with another agent escorted her out after the order was granted. She was placed in custody on the street outside the court, the county officials said.

"In the business of domestic violence, victims don’t always come with a completely clean history or background. Our job is to offer protection regardless of her criminal history," Bernal said.

An arrest affidavit filed in federal court said Gonzalez was a Mexican citizen illegally in the United States, adding the suspect had been convicted of crimes including stealing U.S. mail and assault, the affidavit said.

The woman is being held at the El Paso County jail under a federal detainer.

"This wrongheaded enforcement action sends the message that if a victim is undocumented, future domestic abuse may go unpunished," said Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, a civil rights group.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Alan Crosby)