Seattle DREAMer Case Raises Deportation Concerns

Seattle DREAMer Case Raises Deportation Concerns
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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A tattoo and two sets of initials have come to signify Daniel Ramirez Medina’s predicament -- and possibly his fate.

The initials are DREAMer and DACA. The former stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, a legislative proposal – first introduced in 2001 -- to provide permanent residency for people brought to the U.S. illegally as minors, if they meet certain qualifications. The latter is short for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy put in place by President Obama in 2012 to allow these same unauthorized immigrants to avoid deportation for renewable two-year periods, again if they meet certain requirements.

A tattoo on Ramirez’s arm figures prominently in that last provision. Federal authorities say it represents his involvement with gangs, which would be grounds for deportation; the 23-year-old at the center of a legal battle drawing national attention says it’s a harmless reminder of his birthplace in Mexico.

Together, these factors have shone a spotlight on the fears of countless undocumented immigrants in this nation – fears heightened by Donald Trump’s unyielding campaign rhetoric and his administration’s stepped up focus on the issue. Though Trump has said that the 750,000 people protected by DACA need not worry, Ramirez’s case has given many of them, as well as their advocates, pause.

Ramirez has been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for three weeks. While activists hope that this will be a stand-alone case, his petition against the Department of Homeland Security to free him could have a far-reaching impact.

Ramirez’s lawyers argue that he had passed the department’s extensive background checks on multiple occasions and subsequently gave ICE agents no reason to arrest him. Officials had in fact descended upon Ramirez’s Seattle home on February 10 to arrest his father, but also picked up Daniel in the process, sans warrant. DHS claims the young man admitted to being in the country illegally, while he maintains he merely told officers about his deferred action status.

“Daniel is like all the other DREAMers who were promised -- in return for providing very personal information, an extensive background check, and a substantial fee  -- that they would be able to live, study, and work without the fear of being detained and arrested,” said Elizabeth Hadaway, a lawyer arguing for Ramirez’s conditional release until the case moves through the courts. “This case would allow that promise to be affirmed, and would eliminate the fear that the arrest has created in the DREAMers community.”

But complications abound in the Ramirez case. One of the largest points of contention has been whether he has any gang affiliation. The DHS argues that when asked if he is or has been involved with gang activity, Ramirez responded “no, not no more.” When questioned further about the tattoo, DHS claims Ramirez stated “that he used to hang out with the Surenos in California,” that he fled California to escape the gangs, and “still hangs out with the Paizas in Washington state.”

But Ramirez and his lawyers say differently, arguing that the tattoo symbolizes his birthplace, the Mexican city La Paz.

Ramirez’s lawyers also assert that immigration officials tried to coerce him into admitting he had gang affiliation and altered official court documents to back up that claim. His legal team alleges that officials erased part of a document filed by the detainee, making it appear that he admitted to having gang membership. The attorneys say the original statement read, in full: “I came in and the officers said I have gang affiliation with gangs so I wear an orange uniform. I do not have a criminal history and I’m not affiliated with any gangs.”

A photocopy of the document from the lawyers’ petition appears to show that a portion of the statement was erased. The lawyers say, “As ‘revised’ the statement now begins, ‘I have gang affiliation with gangs so I wear an orange uniform.’ The portion stating ‘I came in and the officers said…’ is still visible, although barely so.”

The DHS and Seattle’s ICE office would not comment on the case.

“We don’t think we should be having to bring this case to court,” Hadaway said. “Officials should have acknowledged that his arrest was a simple mistake and released him. Given the government’s continuous disregard of his rights, it has forced us to step forward and pursue these remedies in the court.”

Simple mistake or not, the outcome of his case could have a significant effect on the DREAMer community. If it goes in Ramirez’s favor, it would affirm immigration laws that are already on the books and bring clarity to a wave of Trump executive orders and memos criticized for their ambiguity.

One such memo from the new administration urged immigration officials to crack down more aggressively on undocumented immigrants, an effort that would ultimately result in faster and higher rates of deportation.

Roberto Dondisch, the head consul of Mexico in Seattle, does not believe Ramirez’s case is emblematic of those new policies, however: “We haven’t seen any upticks or changes from ICE in this section of the country. What we have seen is a change in the rhetoric being used against Mexican immigrants specifically. While we wait for the actions that may come, that is what has people worried.” 

Despite this change in rhetoric, Dondisch is hopeful. “We don’t necessarily think this is the beginning of a pattern that shows disregard to DACA, but rather an isolated case,” he said. “We don’t believe Daniel was detained because of his DACA protections, but detained even though he had DACA protections.”

Dondisch nevertheless believes this case is important to the larger immigration debate because it will help his community “understand DACA protections and how those protections work in the case of a detention. Immigrants in the Seattle area all have different statuses, but they’re all equally stressed.”

Hadaway, however, wants to make clear that those protections are still in place: “Many DACA recipients are worried about their future. They should know that their legal status hasn’t changed. The government is still taking and accepting applications for recipients, and we expect they will continue to uphold their promise to DACA recipients. We are simply asking the court to affirm that promise.”

Ramirez will have a hearing on March 8, where a federal magistrate will decide on his bond, and whether the case will proceed in federal or immigration court. Ramirez’s legal team is pushing for the case to be heard in federal court, while the government want it moved to immigration court.

“Pending the court’s decision,” Hadaway said, “we will assess the next options to pursue full relief for Daniel.”

Ultimately though, Hadaway wants to remind the courts that it is a man’s life at stake: “Daniel has been detained for almost a month. He’s been separated from his family and his son, a U.S. citizen. We feel the urgency for both him and his family, as well as for the 750,000 DREAMers. … We want him to get the hearing and justice that he deserves.”

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