ICE picked up a man at the Orange County jail. What was the Sheriff’s Office’s role?

The domestic-violence charges against a Hillsborough man picked up earlier this month by Immigration and Customs Enforcement were “trumped up,” the man’s fiancée and her supporters said at a news conference Friday.

The group of about two dozen pastors and other activists gathered outside the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to call out immigration-related policies they say are inhumane and unjust.

Sheriff Charles Blackwood has not been honest about the level of cooperation his office gives ICE, they said. Specifically, they want the sheriff to stop providing “courtesy calls” to immigration authorities and to refuse to turn inmates over without first receiving an order signed by a judge.

ICE took Jocsan Cornejo-Cornejo, 31, into federal custody July 18 at the Orange County jail. He had been charged with several misdemeanors, including driving while impaired, speeding, assault on a female, assault on a child under 12 and battery of an unborn child, the Sheriff’s Office said. He was jailed under $25,000 secured bail.

According to a Sheriff’s Office news release, ICE agents were alerted to Cornejo’s arrest June 23 when his fingerprints were submitted to a national database.

On July 18, an ICE agent called the jail to check on Cornejo and some other inmates they hoped to take into federal custody. A jail deputy later called ICE to clarify that Cornejo had a bond hearing later that day, the release said.

Cornejo’s fiancée, Maria Huerta, 39, said the arrest had led to a nightmare situation for her family. Huerta has two small children and had recently stopped working due to a high-risk pregnancy. Cornejo was a construction worker and the family’s breadwinner.

Huerta said she and Cornejo were born in Mexico and that she had lived in Hillsborough for about 20 years. Cornejo has two other U.S. citizen children, she said.

Huerta said she has since had to go back to work, against her doctor’s orders, and now works in a textile factory.

Chief Deputy Jamison Sykes said by phone Friday the department stands by its deputies’ work.

“We acted on the information provided to us and the evidence obtained at the scene when we responded to the 911 call about the domestic situation,” Sykes said.

Domestic violence call

According to an incident report released by the Sheriff’s Office, deputies answered a call June 23 at a Hillsborough home. Huerta’s daughter, interpreting for her mother, told deputies that Huerta and Cornejo had gone out, and when they returned home, started arguing about his drinking, the report states.

Huerta told deputies Cornejo grabbed her under the chin and punched her in the stomach, according to the report. She pushed him away, the report stated, and Cornejo tried to leave with the children, grabbing his daughter by the hair. He left in a gray sport-utility vehicle, the report stated.

On Friday, Huerta disputed that Cornejo had grabbed her or punched her. She told deputies that Cornejo only touched her arm, she said.

Another deputy saw a gray SUV heading south on Interstate 85. The driver was going 80 mph in a 70 mph zone, the deputy reported.

The deputy suspected that the driver, later identified as Cornejo, had been drinking. Cornejo admitted to drinking several shots of tequila and beer over the last several hours, according to the report.

Cornejo said he had argued with his fiancée, who got up in his face, the report stated. Cornejo said he pushed her and she slapped him, according to the report.

The deputies reported giving Cornejo two breath tests, both of which showed his blood alcohol content was 0.12 — over the state’s legal limit of 0.08.

The day Cornejo was booked into jail, the Sheriff’s Office received an ICE detainer request from California, and the ICE office in Cary followed up with a second 48-hour hold request June 25, the Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.

Huerta-Cornejo 2019.jpg
Maria Huerta and Jocsan Cornejo-Cornejo pose for a photo. Huerta joined others today at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to demand answers from Sheriff Charles Blackwood about her fiance’s detention by ICE agents on July 18. Siembra NC Submitted

When ICE arrived

ICE routinely checks on inmates they want to take into federal custody, the Sheriff’s Office said in a news release, and on July 18, an agent called about Cornejo, who had a bond hearing later that day.

ICE showed up at 3:10 p.m. and took Cornejo into custody at 3:36 p.m., the Sheriff’s Office said. That was about a half hour before a district court judge reduced Cornejo’s bond to unsecured, according to the Sheriff’s Office account.

At Friday’s news conference, Huerta said Cornejo was taken first to Alamance County jail, where he slept on the floor for a few days, then to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.

In the past, ICE has criticized Blackwood for rejecting detainers and argued that his decision endangers the community. Detainers are requests that a jail hold people for up to 48 hours beyond when they would otherwise be free.

Blackwood noted in Thursday’s news release that being in the United States without legal immigration status is a civil violation of federal law.

“We keep individuals in our detention center when we are required to do so by the law,” Blackwood said. “Keeping someone incarcerated because another agency, in this case DHS (Department of Homeland Security), requests us to do so does not give us legal authority to hold them.”

“A detainer request is not an order issued by a federal judicial officer,” Blackwood said. “It is merely a request which can be honored or not at the discretion of a sheriff. As a matter of policy, our agency does not honor detainer requests.”

Blackwood’s stance on detainers doesn’t mean his office rejects all cooperation with ICE. The office does share publicly available information, he said.

Blackwood is an executive board member of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association, which recently supported House Bill 370. The bill is aimed at forcing sheriffs to honor detainers for up to 48 hours. He said Friday that he supported the Sheriff’s Association stance, because the organization represents all 100 counties in North Carolina.

“My county is unique, and we police differently here, and we have different philosophies for the way we do most everything we do,” Blackwood said, “but the association’s stance has to be united in order for us to make headway with legislators, who are trying to draft poorly written, not really well thought out, legislative initiatives.”

Orange County’s ICE policy

At the news conference, activists accused Blackwood of misleading activists about his policies.

“We have heard over and over that there is no collaboration between the Sheriff’s Office and ICE,” said Juan Miranda, an organizer with Siembra NC.

Marco Cervantes, an organizer with Apoyo, another Latinx advocacy organization, said, “Now we’re asking the right questions.”

The groups are calling on Blackwood to follow the lead of newly elected Democratic sheriffs in Guilford, Durham, Forsyth, Mecklenburg and Buncombe counties in resisting ICE. They want Blackwood to adopt a “judicial warrant policy” and refuse to turn anyone over to immigration authorities without first seeing an order signed by a judge.

ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said Friday there is no “judicial criminal warrant” for immigration violations. What ICE sends is an administrative warrant, or detainer. A criminal warrant only is issued for someone charged with a crime.

“Quite literally, what they are asking for cannot be done. It does not exist,” he said. “By wanting groups to supply a form that cannot be provided, what they are in essence saying is that under no circumstances should local law enforcement transfer people into ICE custody, even in situations where they are admitted violent criminals.”

The activists noted Friday that Cornejo does not have a criminal record or deportation order, and he has been charged with no felonies. He is owed due process, they said, pointing out that Huerta has denied that Cornejo assaulted her or any child.

“She told the officers, when they arrived at the house, that this did not happen, and they still went ahead and charged him with that, something that’s very common in the very racist justice system that we have,” Miranda said.

Court records show a 2016 domestic violence protective order against Cornejo was dismissed after the woman involved said she did not want to proceed. Huerta said Friday she didn’t know about the earlier order and that she told deputies in June she did not want a protective order.

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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.
Carli Brosseau is a reporter at The News & Observer who often analyzes databases as part of her work. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.