Federal immigration agents say they arrested a Seattle man who came to the the U.S. illegally when he was 7 years old, despite his protection from deportation under an Obama administration program, because he admitted to several connections with street gangs.
In a court brief filed Thursday, officials said such an association is considered a violation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that can result in deportation.
For that reason, and not because of a change in policy under the Trump administration, Justice Department officials said, authorities detained 23-year-old Daniel Ramirez Medina. He now faces a hearing Friday over his status and possible removal from U.S. soil after 16 years, though he claims his arrest was unconstitutional.
According to the brief filed by Jeffrey Robins, an assistant director in the U.S. Office of Immigration Litigation, Ramirez was asked by federal agents about a "gang tattoo" on his forearm, to which he responded that he "used to hang out with the Sureno's in California," referring to a gang. Ramirez added that he "fled California to escape from the gangs," and that he "still hangs out with the Paizas in Washington State."
Ramirez was arrested Feb. 10 after being awakened at his family's apartment in suburban Des Moines, Wash., where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had arrived in the early morning with an arrest warrant to take Ramirez's father into custody as "a prior-deported felon."
Ramirez's brother also was present but not taken into custody. Neither the brother nor father were named in court documents.
Ramirez, who was born in Mexico, is being held at an immigration detention center in Tacoma, Wash. Robins, in the brief responding to questions posed earlier by the court's chief magistrate, said the father "indicated that his adult sons were here 'illegally,' and gave ICE officers permission to enter his apartment.
"When questioned by ICE officers, Petitioner [Ramirez] answered that he was born in Mexico and answered 'yes' to the question whether he was 'illegally' in the United States. In addition, when asked whether he had ever been arrested, Petitioner answered 'yes.'"
Ramirez's attorneys say that both he and his brother thought they were protected from deportation under DACA, created by President Obama to temporarily shield immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children, as the brothers were.
They have current DACA credentials, the attorneys say, that allow them and an estimated 750,000 other "Dreamers," as such young people are known, to work and stay in the U.S. if they renew their status every two years and do not commit significant crimes.
Ramirez's attorneys say he has no criminal record and had recently moved to Seattle from California to find work and support his 3-year-old son, an American citizen, who lives with his mother.
In a lawsuit filed Monday seeking Ramirez's release, his attorney, Mark Rosenbaum, said Ramirez "unequivocally denies being in a gang" and that "he was repeatedly pressured" by agents to falsely admit to a gang affiliation.
On Thursday, Rosenbaum called the claims in court documents that Ramirez did confess gang ties false. "Mr. Ramirez did not say these things because they are not true. And while utterly implausible and wholly fabricated, these claims still would not be sufficient evidence that Mr. Ramirez is a threat to the public safety or national security," he said.
Outcry over the incident has since grown into nightly demonstrations by DACA supporters outside the detention center shouting, "Shame, shame"; spawned a viral #FreeDaniel hashtag linking to rallies in New York and other cities; led to 25,000 signatures on a petition to release Ramirez; and generated international debate over the immigration plans of President Trump.
The case has raised questions: Was Ramirez's detention, as the government says, a routine arrest of someone who posed a threat to the U.S. because of his alleged gang ties? Or was it, as attorneys and civil rights advocates argued, the first time a valid, card-carrying Dreamer had been detained by agents serving notice of a new Trump approach?
There are no clear answers yet, but some may come out of Friday's hearing. The Department of Homeland Security said Dreamers are subject to program revocation if they are considered threats to national security or public safety, and such revocations are not rare. In the past four-plus years, an estimated 1,500 Dreamers have lost their DACA status because of gang links or serious crimes.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), one of a dozen federal and local officials working to free Ramirez, said that because of extensive background checks required for DACA, "if there had been evidence he had been a gang member, he would not have been afforded entry into the program."
In court papers, Ramirez's attorneys claim their client was grilled and threatened by ICE to admit to gang links. "The agents who arrested and questioned Mr. Ramirez were aware that he was a DACA recipient, yet they informed him that he would be arrested, detained and deported anyway, because he was not 'born in this country.'" The attorneys said the arrest constituted unlawful seizure and denial of due process.
Robins, the U.S. official, noted in his brief that DACA protection is not an absolute. "DACA is an exercise of prosecutorial discretion and deferred action may be terminated at any time, with or without a Notice of Intent to Terminate, at DHS's discretion," he wrote.
Although Trump has called for greater border security and a more vigorous approach to deportations, he also has indicated some willingness to take a different approach with Dreamers. In a recent interview with ABC, the president said of Dreamers, "They shouldn't be worried. I have a big heart, we're going to take care of everybody."