A story about an immigrant arrested by U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officers while accompanying his heavily pregnant wife to the hospital for a scheduled cesarean section drew widespread public outrage, followed by confusion, after ICE released a statement saying the man was wanted for murder in Mexico.

Mexican national Joel Arrona-Lara, 35, was arrested by ICE on 15 August 2018 at a gas station in San Bernardino, east of Los Angeles, where he had stopped en route to the hospital with his wife Maria del Carmen Venegas. Footage from surveillance cameras showed ICE officers arresting him and leaving a sobbing Venegas behind. She later gave birth to the couple’s fifth child, a boy, alone.

The story broke in viral fashion, as the Trump administration’s immigration policies have been deeply divisive, setting supporters of President Trump’s harsh approach against critics of that approach, who pointed to the story as further evidence of its cruelty. Behind the impassioned takes, however, the facts were less readily pinned down. ICE said Arrona-Lara was wanted for murder. while his family and lawyer disputed that claim.

“We have not been able to confirm any information on that alleged warrant from Mexico,” Arrona-Lara’s lawyer Emilio Amaya told us by phone on 20 August 2018.

When the story broke on 19 August 2018, ICE released a vaguely-worded statement saying that Arrona-Lara had been “illegally residing in the United States,” and that “[a]ll of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.” As public outcry mounted, however, ICE released a second statement a day later saying, “Mr. Arrona-Lara was brought to ICE’s attention due to an outstanding warrant issued for his arrest in Mexico on homicide charges.”

ICE said their Los Angeles Fugitive Operations Team received a request for assistance in apprehending Arrona-Lara from the attorney general’s office for the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, on 24 July 2018.

The case in Mexico, according to ICE, is being overseen by the Sixth Judge of Criminal Matters in Guanajuato. We contacted a spokesperson for that judge, Guanajuato State Supreme Court President Claudia Barrera Rangel, but the spokesperson was unable to confirm that Joel Arrona-Lara was wanted in relation to a homicide case there. Arrona-Lara’s family denied knowledge of any criminal proceedings against him in Mexico.

According to the attorney general’s office in Guanajuato, Joel and his brothers Julio and Roberto were accused of beating a man to death in March 2006. Roberto was arrested in 2007, and Julio in 2014. Both were acquitted.

Amaya has pointed out that although Arrona-Lara has been publicly accused of murder, he only faces a civil case relating to his unauthorized presence in the U.S. and the matter is being handled outside the criminal system.

San Diego-based immigration attorney Ginger Jacobs said ICE’s decision to make public criminal allegations stemming from information provided by Mexico is not only a break from the past but “character assassination,” noting that the actual case against Arrona-Lara in the U.S. makes no mention of such charges. “As an observer, this dynamic of ICE or Border Patrol coming out and revealing a lot more information than they would have in the past that makes the immigrant look bad is a new phenomenon,” she told us. “We are seeing a lot more character assassination against the immigrants that are being arrested in response to social media outrage.”

It’s very consistent, she said, “with the tone that Trump is setting at the top, with Twitter wars and social medial wars. It almost seems like the agencies are following suit.”

Jacobs likened the incident to one from March 2018, during which Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers in San Diego were seen arresting a woman by pushing her into their vehicle in front of her screaming children on the sidewalk. CBP, which like ICE and Border Patrol falls under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), claimed the woman was an organizer for a transnational smuggling ring. Jacobs said CBP produced no evidence to support those claims.

Pedro Rios, an immigrant advocate for the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego, told us the confusion created by such cases can cause people to believe, without being in possession of all the facts, that the immigrant in question is guilty of a heinous crime before they have had their day in court: “Border Patrol has done similar things where they make statements that say the people detained are known human traffickers when the individuals are not ever charged with the crimes they’re being accused of. It’s character assassination to justify their reprehensible tactics, and that seems to be what ICE is doing in this case.”

Information from the attorney general's office in Guanajuato was added.

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