President Trump has said that any unauthorized immigrant in the US should be deportable. But he has also said that the 750,000 immigrants who’ve been protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — which grants two-year protection from deportation and work permits to young adults who came to the US as children — are “terrific” people who shouldn’t worry about their futures.
Those two positions always conflicted. And while the Trump administration is still delaying a decision on what to do with the “DREAMers” who’ve received DACA protections, it looks like the crisis is coming to a head.
Last week, DACA recipient Daniel Ramirez Medina was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in the Seattle area and put in immigration detention. On Tuesday, ICE officially started the process of trying to deport him — and stripped him of his DACA protections.
It’s not clear whether Ramirez’ arrest and the revocation of his work permit reflect a new ICE policy toward DACA recipients, or if this is just an isolated case. But in the context of the broader uncertainty that DACA recipients are feeling under the Trump administration, and the widespread panic caused by nationwide immigration raids last week, the case has gotten a lot of public attention very quickly. How it gets resolved will send a strong message about how safe “DACAmented” immigrants really are under Trump.
What we know about the arrest of Daniel Ramirez
- Daniel Ramirez came to the US from Mexico when he was 7. He’s now 23, with a 3-year-old son who is a US citizen. Under DACA, he applied for protection from deportation and a work permit in 2014, and received both. He got his DACA renewed on May 5, 2016 — meaning that, in theory, he should be protected from deportation and able to work legally through May 2018.
- According to the complaint filed by Ramirez’s lawyers, ICE agents came to the home of Ramirez’s father on the morning of February 10 with a warrant for Ramirez’s father. ICE says that Ramirez’s father is a felon and had been deported in the past, which (if true) would make his arrest consistent with the targets of widespread raids last week. Daniel Ramirez and his brother (who also has DACA) were both in the house.
- According to the complaint filed by Daniel Ramirez’ lawyers, when the ICE agents entered after arresting Ramirez’s father, they reportedly asked Daniel Ramirez if he was in the US legally. Ramirez said he had a work permit but did not answer further questions. According to a brief the federal government filed in response, however, Daniel Ramirez had answered “yes” to the question of whether he was here illegally — and had also answered “yes” when asked if he’d ever been arrested.
- The ICE agents took Daniel Ramirez into custody. He’s currently in immigration detention in Tacoma.
- Ramirez’s brother does not appear to have been arrested.
- According to the federal government, ICE agents questioned Ramirez about gang affiliations, including a “gang tattoo” on his arm. Ramirez answered that he wasn’t involved in gang activity “no more,” and had “fled California to escape from the gangs,” but that he “still hangs out with the Paizas in Washington State.”
- On Tuesday, lawyers filed a complaint in federal court over Ramirez’s detention, asking a judge to order the Department of Homeland Security to release Ramirez because he hasn’t been charged with anything and shouldn’t, as a DACA recipient, have been detained in the first place.
- The federal magistrate judge in the case (as reported by Adolfo Flores and Chris Geidner of BuzzFeed) ordered the government to clarify why Ramirez was detained despite having DACA, and whether DHS had placed him in deportation proceedings.
- On Thursday, the federal government filed a brief with the judge indicating that they had, in fact, placed Ramirez in deportation proceedings on Tuesday the 14th. When that happened, Ramirez was stripped of his DACA protections.
ICE says Daniel Ramirez is a gang member — which could make for a tricky case
On Tuesday, ICE released a statement calling Daniel Ramirez a “self-admitted gang member” who’d been taken into custody “based on his admitted gang affiliation and risk to public safety.”
Ramirez’s lawyers deny that he has any gang involvement — instead, lawyer Ethan Dettmer told Reuters that ICE agents “repeatedly pressured” Ramirez “to falsely admit” gang affiliation. Dettmer, it’s worth noting, is a partner at the major law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, whose partners include former US Solicitor General Ted Olson and a lawyer who was rumored to be on the shortlist to head the Securities and Exchange Commission under Trump — which should give you a sense of how seriously advocates are taking this case.
Here’s why the gang involvement question is so critical: In theory, the government can take away an individual’s protection from deportation under DACA at any time, because DACA is officially a grant of “prosecutorial discretion” in an individual case rather than a formal grant of immigration status. Meanwhile, one of the reasons someone applying for DACA (for the first time, or for a two-year renewal) can be denied protection is if he’s deemed a threat to public safety — a category that includes gang affiliation.
So while DHS could, in theory, do the same thing they did to Daniel Ramirez — detain him, put him in deportation proceedings, and strip him of his protection — to any DACA recipient, they might be taking a more conservative approach: arguing that he’s rendered himself ineligible for protection by being a member of a gang.
Unhelpfully, determining that someone is or is not a gang member is very tricky. Doing it based on tattoos, as ICE appears to have done in Ramirez’ case, isn’t uncommon. ICE, as well as many states, maintains databases of “known gang members” — but those databases are often overbroad and inaccurate. If this question is what Ramirez’s case comes down to, DHS could make an argument that it’s actively rescinding Ramirez’s DACA protections for a particular reason (gang affiliation) rather than just on a whim.
Ramirez’s arrest could be an isolated incident — or an attempt to push the envelope
It’s entirely possible that Ramirez’s arrest was just a one-off case, and doesn’t reflect broader government policy.
Jorge Barón, the executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, told the Stranger that he thinks Ramirez was simply scooped up during the raid that arrested his father as a “collateral arrest.” As Barón points out, collateral arrests spread fear throughout immigrant communities — since they mean people are being scooped up simply for being unauthorized and in the wrong place at the wrong time — but they don’t necessarily mean that the government is changing its stance toward DACA recipients.
The future of the DACA program, as a whole, is in doubt. Trump administration officials have drafted an executive order that would phase out the program over two years, making DACA recipients deportable (and no longer able to work legally) once their current grants expire. But negotiations over whether Trump should actually sign it appear to be ongoing.
In the context of that uncertainty, the fact that at least one immigrant has been stripped of DACA protections under Trump is, to immigrants and advocates, an extremely ominous sign.
Officially, the program is still in effect: immigration lawyers report that their clients are still getting DACA grants and renewals from US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Ramirez’s arrest raises questions, however, about whether ICE is getting more aggressive toward DACA recipients despite their having DACA — and whether ICE is going to try to strip them of protections and deport them. The circumstances of Ramirez’s case might be unique (a collateral arrest in a raid that targeted his father, a purported gang affiliation), but once ICE has crossed the line of treating DACA recipients as deportable, every DACA recipient is likely to worry that they’ll be next.
As the past several years of immigration enforcement have demonstrated, “policy” isn’t just what memos from political appointees say the government is doing — it’s what agents in the field actually do.
The ICE agents in Washington state may not have been acting on an official Trump administration policy when they detained Ramirez. And if the Department of Homeland Security discourages agents from arresting DACA recipients in future, then Ramirez’s arrest really will be an isolated incident — a mistake, even.
But by being allowed to actually strip his DACA protections — especially if other ICE agents follow suit — they are effectively sending a message. Even though DACA is still officially on the books, 750,000 “DACAmented” immigrants are no longer safe.