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Thursday, October 20, 2011
EXCLUSIVE: Escondido woman turned over to immigration after domestic violence incident
A woman who called the Escondido Police Department to report that she was beaten by her boyfriend was herself arrested and later turned over to immigration authorities after she was booked at the Vista jail, a case that critics say illustrates the problems inherent in local police getting involved in immigration enforcement.
Elena Cabrera, 36, said she came home tired from work on the morning of Aug. 20 and wanted to sleep a little. But her then live-in boyfriend, Jorge Melgar, 50, wanted her to do house chores and began beating her when she refused. When police arrived, he told the officers that she had also hit him, Cabrera said.
Cabrera said she did not hit him, but was arrested anyway. She had a bloody lip and bruises on her face, she said.
Escondido police Lt. Craig Carter said both people were arrested on suspicion of domestic violence and there were injuries on both of them. Carter said the department did not turn Cabrera over to immigration authorities.
After the couple was arrested, the couple's four minor children were left home alone, Cabrera said. Police are investigating the family's complaint that the kids were left without supervision, Carter said.
Bill Flores, a retired assistant sheriff and a member of the human rights group El Grupo, said Escondido's close working relationship with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hurts its ability to protect the community. He said police officers knew that Cabrera would be screened for immigration violations at the Vista jail and chose to take her into custody.
Incidents like Cabrera's hurt the department's relationship with the community, Flores said, making immigrants less likely to report crimes in the future.
"Everybody in that neighborhood found out what happened," Flores said. "She was a victim of domestic violence, she was taken to jail and she ended up getting turned over to ICE. All because she sought help from the Escondido Police Department."
After being arrested, Cabrera was taken to the Escondido Police Department and later to the Vista jail, where ICE placed an immigration hold on her, apparently as part of its Secure Communities program. Secure Communities links local jails to federal databases to identify illegal immigrants who are booked into the facilities.
"I never thought that this would happen to me," Cabrera said during an interview last week. "To me, it was a complete surprise."
A spokeswoman for ICE in San Diego declined to comment on the case.
Cabrera spent several days at the Vista jail before she was turned over to immigration authorities. Cabrera had an immigration petition pending as a victim of domestic violence related to a prior relationship. Under a law called the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, battered women who are married to U.S. citizens can apply for an immigrant visa.
Melgar, a legal resident, was not turned over to immigration authorities. He spent four days in jail before he was released.
Lilia Velasquez, a San Diego immigration attorney representing Cabrera, said having the visa petition does not necessarily mean that a victim is safe from deportation. However, under a new policy by the Obama administration, immigration authorities have discretion on when to pursue deportation procedures.
The Obama administration has said it wants to focus its resources on deporting violent illegal immigrant criminals, immigrants who have been ordered deported by an immigration judge and people who repeatedly have been caught in the country illegally.
"Given the new policy of prosecutorial discretion, ICE should have removed the hold (on Cabrera) once they ascertained she was a (Violence Against Women Act) beneficiary," Velasquez said.
The San Diego County District Attorney's office declined to file charges against either Cabrera or her boyfriend. She was released from immigration custody on Aug. 28 due to her Violence Against Women Act visa petition.
Critics say that the Obama administration's immigration policies, including Secure Communities, have created a dragnet that catches not only violent criminals but also people whose only violation is being in the country illegally. Those policies break families apart, tearing parents away from their U.S.-born children, critics say.
While she was detained, Cabrera's four children, ages 3 to 17 years old, were left in her Escondido home without supervision, she said. Her oldest daughter, Tayana Zarate, 17, said she had to care for her siblings while trying to figure out where her mother was being held and how to have her released.
Tayana said a neighbor helped her buy food and drove her around to find her mother.
"They never asked who I was, my name, how old I was, is there a grown-up in the house?" Tayana said last week. "They don't care."
The family filed a complaint with the police department for leaving the children without supervision. Tayana and her mother spoke with police detectives last Thursday night about the complaint.
Carter said the officers noted in their report that they left the children in the care of an "18-year-old female."
The department also came under fire last year when it announced that it had forged a new alliance with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement allowing several immigration officers to work out of its headquarters. Operation Joint Effort, as the program is called, is the only one of its kind in the county. It has been credited by the department with the arrest of over 400 criminal illegal immigrants since it started in May 2010.
Under the program, immigration officers are available to help police officers identify people who have been previously deported or who have been ordered deported, according to Escondido police officials. They are also available to join the police on special operations, such as anti-gang raids.
However, Carter said that Cabrera's arrest had nothing to do with Operation Joint Effort.
"This has nothing to do with immigration," Carter said. "This is a domestic violence issue."