ICE agents arrest undocumented immigrant father outside Austin child custody hearing

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested an undocumented immigrant the moment he stepped out of a mediation meeting in Austin on Wednesday. The meeting was a court-mandated order over a custody battle with his ex-wife over their three-year-old daughter. 

His family law attorney is critical of the arrest, calling it cruel and unfair. 

According to ICE, officers will generally avoid enforcing arrests at places like courthouses and family court proceedings. However, it is completely legal.

According to Daniella Lyttle, the family law attorney representing Javier Alexander Valencia, ICE agents were waiting in the parking lot of the law office where the mediation was taking place. Lyttle said Valencia was scheduled to pick up his daughter immediately following the appointment. 

“This is a dirty strategy and a dirty game to play that is involving the life of kids,” Lyttle said. “The person that is most affected here is a three-year-old little girl who was expecting her dad to pick her up after this mediation. And she won’t get to see her dad.”  

KXAN reached out to Immigration and Customs Enforcement regarding this specific case in Austin. A spokesperson for their public affairs office said this was a routine targeted ICE enforcement action.

Lyttle said Valencia entered the United States with a tourist visa over a decade ago. His United States citizenship is pending his new marriage to his current fiancée, a legal resident of the U.S. 

Lyttle said mediation meetings should be a safe-space where people can go to solve their differences, no matter their legal status.  

“He is obligated to go to mediation, but that was used against him.”  

Daniella Lyttle, family law attorney

Austin Immigration attorney Jason Finkelman, who does not represent any of the involved parties, said a “safe-space” like that doesn’t exist. 

“There’s no such thing as a safe-space where ICE cannot conduct its enforcement priorities. ICE can go wherever they need to go to conduct enforcement,” Finkelman said. “Immigration Customs and Enforcement officers have wide and sweeping authority to do what they want, when they want.”  

On its website, ICE said it changed its policy related to arresting people inside courthouses after more jurisdictions stopped working with them. 

The American Civil Liberties Union helped lead a survey. They support expanding immigrants’ civil rights. 

In 2017, it said judges reported court cases were being interrupted because immigrants were too afraid to go to court. That’s up 10 percent from the previous year. 

“Under the previous administration, it was policy to have ICE focus their limited resources on deporting and removing individuals who have criminal convictions, who were drug dealers, who were terrorists, things of that nature,” Finkelman said. “This current administration is casting a wider net to remove individuals from the U.S. and in particular, parents and children, in an effort to deter other people from coming to this country.” 

Lyttle said after the arrest was made, she was denied access to him at the federal building he was taken to. Lyttle said denying access to her client is a violation of his right to due process.

ICE told KXAN that visitation is not allowed at ICE’s operational office, only at detention facilities.

“While detained at this office, [Valencia] was allotted three phone calls, one of which he used to call his attorney. On July 24, a representative from a local law firm retrieved a set of keys from Mr. Valencia.  However, ICE had no other contact with his attorney July 24 or 25,” an ICE spokesperson wrote.

Valencia’s own immigration attorney confirmed he has a criminal history out-of-state. Valencia was charged with a misdemeanor that dates back nearly a decade ago. ICE confirmed Valencia was convicted of a misdemeanor out of Pierce County in Washington state. The attorney said that charge has been resolved and that he has no outstanding warrants. 

Lyttle believes this arrest isn’t related to that former criminal charge. She called this a targeted attempt and example of our judicial system being used to track down and zero-in on an undocumented immigrant. 

“The method in which they chose to do it is extremely cruel. It really felt like he was picked up and disappeared out of thin air,” Lyttle said. “The courts have a responsibility to revise those orders to ensure that mediations are safe for people, regardless of their immigration status.” 

Officials with Travis County courts do not communicate with ICE regarding any legal proceedings related to illegal aliens,” a spokesperson with ICE wrote. “Ice has no access to Travis County legal schedules.”

Additional in-depth reporting on border issues

To get move in-depth perspective on what’s going on along the southern border, check out BorderReport.com

It’s KXAN’s partnership with sister stations from Brownsville, to El Paso to San Diego. Get daily updates on news across the region. Check out policy developments from Washington and even view live cameras along the border. 

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