Carmen Cruz leads a vigil for her son, Erick Díaz-Cruz, who was shot in the cheek by ICE agents in front of his family’s Gravesend, Brooklyn home, Feb. 16, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
By Claudia Irizarry Aponte, originally published in THE CITY.
Erick Díaz-Cruz was supposed to return to his native Mexico last Wednesday.
Instead, that was the day he was released from Brooklyn’s Maimonides Hospital, where he underwent extensive facial surgery after an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent shot him in the cheek during a Feb. 6 raid in Gravesend.
The agents were seeking to detain his mom’s partner of 12 years, Gaspar Avendaño-Hernández, who had been arrested three days earlier on a felony criminal charge.
Carmen Cruz — Erick’s mother, who has lived in the U.S. for 21 years — saw the whole thing.
“It was so painful. There are no words,” she told THE CITY in Spanish. “I want justice for my son and for my partner to be free.”
The incident has traumatized the family, now thrust into a national debate over whether President Donald Trump’s targeting of so-called sanctuary cities has gone too far. As in dozens of localities around the country, New York City authorities decline to cooperate with ICE enforcement, with few exceptions.
THE CITY spoke with Cruz after a vigil in front of her West 12th Street home, where the family and activists from around the city gathered Sunday to demand accountability from ICE in her son’s shooting. They also called for the release of Avendaño-Hernández, who is under federal custody in New Jersey and faces deportation.
A crowd of about 30 people lit candles and led chants in solidarity for Avendaño-Hernández and for Díaz-Cruz, who waved from behind a curtain, with only his silhouette visible.
Erick Díaz-Cruz was shot in the cheek by ICE agents while visiting his family in Gravesend, Brooklyn from Mexico. Photo: Courtesy of Cruz Family
He “is not yet able to speak publicly,” his mother said.
Outside, supporters expressed empathy.
“No family should have to go through what Carmen is going through,” Carlos Calzadilla, of the group Youth Progressives for America, told the crowd. “This is insanity.”
Demands for Justice
The morning of Feb. 6 started like any other for Cruz: Avendaño-Hernández had left for work. The mother and son were having breakfast when Díaz-Cruz saw something unusual happening outside the front door.
A group of strangers was trying to grab Avendaño-Hernández. Díaz-Cruz stepped outside to confront them, not knowing they were plainclothes ICE agents, his mother said.
The 26-year-old was caught between the officers and Avendaño-Hernández when an agent fired a gun. The bullet grazed Díaz-Cruz’s left hand, which he held up in an attempt to protect his face, and landed in his cheekbone. Two ICE agents were also injured in the raid, according to a statement from the agency.
The incident galvanized protests and demands for justice from lawmakers and advocates.
Brooklyn community members hold a vigil for Erick Díaz-Cruz, who was shot in the cheek by ICE agents in front of his family’s Gravesend, Brooklyn home, Feb. 16, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Tensions heightened further when ICE prohibited Díaz-Cruz’s family and legal counsel from entering his hospital room, according to his mother and multiple other witnesses, among them City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn).
Advocates say the standoff conflicts with longstanding ICE standards that consider “sensitive locations,” such as hospitals, churches and schools, off-limits to enforcement actions. ICE states that it can overrule those guidelines when “deemed appropriate.”
It wasn’t until the Consulate General of Mexico intervened that Carmen Cruz finally saw her son — whom she described as hard-working, noble and upstanding — that evening.
“I cannot explain the feeling of seeing my son in the hospital,” she told THE CITY, fighting back tears. “Just a profound sense of sadness.”
Díaz-Cruz’s trip marked the first time the mother and son had seen each other in 11 years. On the day of the raid, Cruz had been looking forward to her son visiting the beauty salon where she works and meeting her colleagues.
An Extended Separation
“I just wanted to show him around the city,” she said. “I was so happy to have him home.”
The Mexican Consulate confirmed Díaz-Cruz had a tourist visa.
Cruz declined to say whether the family intends to pursue legal action over her son’s injuries.
Local U.S. Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Nydia Velázquez, both Democrats, sent a joint letter to the agency on the day of the shooting, expressing their “serious concern” over the circumstances. In a Spanish-language statement four days later, the Consulate General of Mexico announced it had requested “an in-depth investigation” into the incident by ICE.
Meanwhile, the City Council has scheduled an emergency Feb. 28 joint hearing of its committees on Immigration and Hospitals.
“I find it outrageous that any federal agency would ever consider trespassing on a place of safety and healing,” said Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan), who chairs the Council’s Committee on Hospitals, said in a statement to THE CITY.
A Message for the President
Signs of stepped-up ICE enforcement have increased the uncertainty and anguish for many immigrants in the city.
On Friday, the Trump administration announced it would deploy elite tactical agents to sanctuary cities, including New York, as part of a revved-up arrest operation lasting until May, The New York Times reported.
The squads, known as BORTAC, typically conduct high-risk operations akin to a Border Patrol SWAT team, and carry gear such as hand grenades and sniper rifles.
At Sunday night’s vigil, activists said they would keep a close eye on ICE.
Brooklyn community members hold a vigil for Díaz-Cruz. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Whitney Hu, an organizer with Sunset Park ICE Watch, announced expanded patrols and monitoring of enforcement activity starting at 6 a.m. Monday in Kensington, Sunset Park and Bay Ridge.
“What better F-you to the president than to start doing this on President’s Day?” she said to raucous cheers.
Meanwhile, Cruz has been nursing her son back to health and bracing for his substantial medical bills. And she’s grieving her separation from Avendaño-Hernández, not knowing when — or if — they will reunite.
Fabiola Mendieta, a neighbor and close friend of the family, has set up a fundraiser to cover Díaz-Cruz medical bills, which amount to about $30,000 so far, according to Cruz.
“The response from the community has been overwhelming, and I feel very blessed for everyone’s support,” Cruz said.
And she has a few words to offer the president: “I’d ask him to look deep in his heart, if he has one, because his agents were out to murder my son,” she said. “And I’m not going to stop fighting until justice is served and they all pay.”