Orange County

Bodycam video helps clarify immigrant’s arrest, open talks on sheriff’s ICE policy

Nearly a month after immigration activists rallied outside the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, a clearer picture has emerged about the events that got a Hillsborough man arrested on domestic-violence charges and may now lead to him being deported.

The questions surrounding Jocsan Cornejo-Cornejo’s arrest also have opened a dialogue between the Sheriff’s Office and activists who had said his charges were “trumped up.”

About two dozen supporters joined Siembra NC and Apoyo on July 26 to call out Sheriff Charles Blackwood on his stated policy that his office does not honor federal detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Cornejo’s fiancee, Maria Huerta, 39, denied at the rally that she had told a deputy that Cornejo had punched her in the stomach on June 23 at the couple’s home. He only touched her arm, she said through an interpreter.

But body camera footage obtained by The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun shows Heurta told a different story to the deputy who answered the 911 call at the home. The footage, released by a judge last week, also shows deputies arresting Cornejo on driving while impaired and speeding charges on the side of Interstate 85.

Huerta and her daughter met Sheriff’s Deputy Cpl. Mike Davis that night on the porch, the video shows.

Huerta, speaking in English and Spanish, grabbed her chin and pushed back her head, describing what happened during an argument about Cornejo’s drinking. He “pushed me in my stomach,” she said in English.

“She tried to push him away so he would let go of her,” added her daughter, who also interpreted for Huerta. Davis repeated the word “pushed” when he confirmed with Huerta what happened, but he later wrote in his report that Cornejo “punched” her in the stomach.

Different words, same charges

Davis said last week he doesn’t remember a lot of details, except for the girl who told him Cornejo had pulled her hair. He had been issued the body camera just days earlier and had not reviewed the footage, he said, but the discrepancy was a misunderstanding.

“It sometimes can be difficult (to be accurate) if multiple people are talking,” he said.

Although Davis reported a punch, not a push, the misdemeanor charges of assault on a female, assault on a child under 12 and battery of an unborn child would have been the same for a push, he said.

Cornejo remained in jail under $25,000 bail until a July 18 hearing. The judge reduced his bail at that hearing, which would have allowed him to leave the jail, but ICE officers arrested him on an immigration violation 30 minutes before the judge issued the order.

ICE agents learned about Cornejo’s arrest when his fingerprints were submitted to a national database as a routine part of the booking process, the Sheriff’s Office has reported. An ICE officer called the jail July 18 to make sure Cornejo was still there, and a jail deputy later called ICE to clarify that Cornejo had a bail hearing later that day, the report said.

Cornejo is now in ICE custody at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, where supporters said he is waiting for an immigration bond hearing that might allow him to come home until his deportation hearing.

Sheriff’s Office reaction

Chief Deputy Jamison Sykes admitted a “push” is less aggressive than a “punch” and said the report can be amended. The Sheriff’s Office also can address the error by reinforcing with deputies that they should slow down to ensure they get the facts straight, he said.

The Sheriff’s Office is more concerned, however, with how activists handled the issue, he and others said. The rally, Sykes said, “destroyed a lot of trust and caused fear among the people we serve unnecessarily.”

A follow-up meeting with activists last week — the second since the July rally — was about how to move forward, they said. Blackwood emphasized the importance of working together.

“It was never my intention for the video to be seen, however, the video is representative of what the officers saw and heard at that call,” he said. “Those officers acted on what they were told, they acted in accordance with the law, and that’s as fair as we can be.”

Activists, law enforcement talk

Siembra and Apoyo representatives said they’ve had a “productive dialogue” and want to keep talking about closing local policy gaps that allow immigrants who are in the country illegally to be detained.

Otherwise, I think we see that stuff about the charges (against Cornejo) as being separate and are just trying to support the family,” said Andrew Willis Garces, a Siembra organizer. “Whether or not 100 percent of the story gets out correctly or is reported to us correctly, we’re not as concerned about that.”

What is concerning, said Rubi Franco Quiroz, an organizer with Apoyo, is that this case might make other women think twice about coming forward. Garces said they are trying to clarify the issue and ease concerns that people may have about the Sheriff’s Office.

The groups have asked Blackwood to stop all voluntary cooperation with ICE and not turn over inmates here illegally without a signed judge’s order, or “judicial warrant,” similar to what newly elected Democratic sheriffs in Guilford, Durham, Mecklenburg and other counties have adopted.

There is no “judicial criminal warrant” for civil immigration violations, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox has said. However, ICE can obtain a judicial criminal warrant for someone charged with federal crimes or who has returned to the United States after being deported.

What ICE usually sends is a detainer, or administrative warrant, that asks local agencies to hold people who have been arrested and are suspected of an immigration violation. The holds can be for up to 48 hours beyond when someone otherwise would be released.

Blackwood, who has been criticized for not honoring ICE detainers, contends that continuing to hold people who otherwise would be released violates their constitutional rights.

The Sheriff’s Office does share publicly available information with ICE; it can’t stop ICE officers from enforcing federal law, Sykes said.

One option on the table, to remove the Sheriff’s Office from the equation, is letting ICE officers wait in the jail parking lot for people being released, though the federal agency might have neither sufficient information nor staffing to do that effectively. Sykes said since the Orange County jail is downtown and lacks a secure parking lot, an ICE arrest there could lead to a foot chase or other problems.

Garces said ICE is unlikely to use that option, and it hasn’t happened in other places. They don’t think other people will be picked up at random either, he said, because ICE detains more people in jail.

ICE immigration arrests

In 2018, ICE reported arresting 15,189 people in the Atlanta region, which covers Georgia and the Carolinas. Those detainees included 9,490 convicted criminals — 4,464 of those had pending criminal charges.

In the first half of this year, the Atlanta region reported 7,013 arrests, including 4,084 convicted criminals. Of those convicted, 2,173 had additional charges pending.

The 2018 report shows most convictions were for traffic, driving while impaired and drug charges. But it also shows that ICE arrests are rising among those without any criminal convictions or charges. Cox has said ICE officers will have to make more arrests in the community when local sheriffs refuse to cooperate.

ICE arrests 2016-18.jpg
A 2018 Immigration and Customs Enforcement report noted that roughly 90 percent of those who are detained have been convicted of a crime or have criminal charges pending. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Contributed

Cornejo will be returned to Orange County for his hearing on the local charges, Cox said, and the jail will be asked to hold him for ICE pick up once the local case is decided.

Meanwhile, Huerta, who has a high-risk pregnancy, has returned to work against doctor’s orders. She is struggling mentally and emotionally, Quiroz said, but has reached out to the Compass Center in Chapel Hill, which helps domestic violence survivors.

Huerta spoke out despite fearing the publicity and how it could affect her and her daughter, who made the 911 call, Quiroz said. She doesn’t want to speak publicly again, and they hope people don’t judge her.

“That fear of losing him or her daughter getting backlash for what happened in any sort of way, shape or form affected a lot of the statements that were made,” Quiroz said. “I think it’s also important to recognize how she could be portrayed from this and her own image and her own health, stability and mental (state), everything that comes with this.”

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.