On the morning of February 10th, Daniel Ramirez was sleeping on a couch in his father’s apartment in Des Moines, Washington, when three agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) walked through the front door. The agents had just arrested his father, who is undocumented, in the parking lot outside, and when they learned that Daniel and his older brother, Josue, were in the apartment they decided to investigate. An agent asked Daniel for his name, date of birth, and birthplace. He is twenty-four and was born in Mexico, but he grew up in California. Since 2014, he has been registered with the federal government under a policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era measure that establishes “lawful presence” for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. The program allows beneficiaries—some eight hundred thousand people nationwide, often referred to as Dreamers—to work legally, while also freeing them from the immediate threat of deportation. “I have a work permit. You cannot take me,” Daniel told the agent before he was handcuffed. Daniel has been in federal detention since his arrest, and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, has refused to release him.
President Trump has called immigrants “criminals” and touted plans for mass deportations, but he has professed compassion for Dreamers. “We are going to deal with DACA with heart,” he said last month. “To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have, because you have these incredible kids.” A few days later, when Homeland Security published a memo overhauling its immigration-enforcement policies, it undid every guideline from the previous Administration except DACA, which was kept intact.
Still, according to United We Dream, the largest youth-led immigrant group in the country, six DACA recipients have been apprehended since Trump took office, and three of them are currently still in custody. Greisa Martínez, United We Dream’s advocacy director and a DACA recipient herself, told me, “I don’t think we’re going to get Donald Trump cancelling DACA. I fear we’re going to get this slow, bleed-out death of the program. The question is whether we are in that already.”
The case of Daniel Ramirez shows how DACA could be undercut without being officially eliminated. A team of lawyers has sued the government on Ramirez’s behalf, alleging that his due process was violated when he was arrested. The government has responded by aggressively defending Ramirez’s detention, insisting that Homeland Security can revoke the protections afforded by DACA without court review. “An individual with deferred action remains removable at any time, and DHS has the discretion to revoke deferred action unilaterally,” Justice Department lawyers argued in a recent motion to dismiss the case.
Homeland Security had this power under President Obama, too, and exercised it against DACA recipients who were convicted of a crime or who were deemed a threat to public safety. “A DACA recipient had to do something to warrant their DACA getting stripped,” Felicia Escobar, a former special assistant to Obama on immigration policy, told me. Ramirez did not commit a crime, but the ICE agents who arrested him are claiming that he still constituted a threat to public safety. Ramirez and his lawyers insist that the agents have no actual evidence against him. Nevertheless, as soon as the accusation was made, Homeland Security “terminated” Ramirez’s DACA status and began the process of deporting him. “This is an important test case to push the premise of whether the new Administration can go after DACA kids or not,” Escobar said.
After his arrest, the ICE agents took Ramirez to a holding facility in Tukwila, south of Seattle, where he was processed. By then, according to a declaration that Ramirez signed under oath, he had already informed the agents of his DACA status. But any doubts the agents had should have been cleared up once they fingerprinted Ramirez and ran his name through state and federal databases. The search demonstrated not only that Ramirez had no criminal history but also that he first received DACA in 2014, after an extensive background check, and that he successfully applied to renew his status in February, 2016. As Ramirez’s lawyers have pointed out, he has been vetted by the federal government three times: when he applied for DACA, when he reapplied, and again in 2015, when the government conducted a review of all DACA recipients by running “biographic and biometric background checks . . . against a variety of databases maintained by the DHS and other federal government agencies.”
Ramirez said that, after conducting these checks, the ICE agent who arrested him began pressing him. “The same officer with short hair who questioned me at the apartment continued to interrogate me,” Ramirez said in his declaration. “He searched me, removed my wallet from my shorts, and took out my identification and employment-authorization card, which shows I have DACA. . . . The officer then started asking if I was in a gang.” Homeland Security considers gang membership a public-safety threat, but Ramirez denied having anything to do with gangs. The officer persisted. “I think he asked me five to seven times,” Ramirez said. “Each time, I said, ‘No, I am not in a gang.’ ” At a certain point, a second agent joined in the interrogation. “They would not stop. It felt like forever. I felt an intense amount of pressure, like if I did not give them something, they would not stop.” Eventually, he told the agents that in high school, he had known kids who had belonged to a gang, and that he had “done nothing more than hang with a few” of them. “When I was in high school, I knew people that were in gangs, which is impossible not to if you come from my community and go to the public school,” he said.
In the official reports that the agents filed in Ramirez’s case, they posited several theories about his supposed gang ties. Because he was from Fresno, California, one agent said that he likely belonged to the group known as the Bulldogs, and that he was also a member of a gang called the Sureños. The agents fixated on a tattoo Ramirez has on his left forearm, which reads “La Paz—BCS,” with the letters written around a blue nautical star. (The letters refer to where Ramirez was born: La Paz, the capital city of Baja California Sur.) The agents described it in their arrest report as a “gang affiliated tattoo.” In court filings, Ramirez’s lawyers have cited academic experts on California gangs to rebut these claims, and the government hasn’t pushed the argument further. (Homeland Security, through a spokesperson at the Department of Justice, declined to comment on the specific details of the case while it is pending in a federal court.) This weekend, I sent a photograph of the tattoo to Carlos García, a Mexican researcher who is one of the world’s leading authorities on gangs from California and Central America. “All the tattoo shows is where this young man is from,” he told me. “There isn’t even a name of the supposed gang on it. Any argument about gang ties based on this tattoo is weak at best; this tattoo does not show any gang affiliation.” García also pointed out that the Bulldogs and the Sureños are arch enemies. “It sounds like they’re accusing him of belonging to every possible gang,” he said.
When Ramirez was being prepared for detention, agents asked him which gang he wanted to be grouped with inside the prison. Ramirez, who still insisted he had no gang ties, asked to be identified as “paisa” or “paisano,” a common reference to someone who is Mexican but unaffiliated with any gang. The agents appeared to take this as another admission, indicating in their report that Ramirez “claims past and present association with the Sureño and Paisano gangs.” They gave him a special orange jumpsuit to wear, which identified him as a higher security priority in detention. Ramirez filed a handwritten appeal contesting this designation, but part of his disavowal of gang membership appears to have been erased. (The government claims that the pen Ramirez used was low on ink and “did not write well.”) The agents who worked the case have also submitted two different versions of Ramirez’s arrest report, without explaining why certain portions of text were removed from the second document, including an explicit confirmation of Ramirez’s DACA status.
Last month, Homeland Security came under mounting scrutiny by the press for its detention of Ramirez. On February 15th, the agency issued a public statement explaining Ramirez’s arrest, and identifying him as “an alien gang member.” Around that time, an ICE spokeswoman insisted that Ramirez was a “self-admitted gang member” who posed a “risk to public safety.” The government has since claimed to have more corroborating evidence of Ramirez’s gang ties, although to date none of that information has appeared in court filings. According to his lawyers, when Ramirez entered detention, the other inmates recognized him as “Daniel from the news” and asked him if he really was a gangster.
Late last week, I called John Sandweg, who served as both the acting head of ICE and general counsel for Homeland Security under Obama. “The message to ICE officers used to be to tread very lightly if the person was a DACA recipient,” he told me. DACA recipients, he added, were “the gold standard: vetted individuals who are very clearly a low priority. The opposite message seems to be sent now. This is the kind of precedent that catches officers’ attention. The message being sent to the officers is ‘You guys are in charge. If you’re taking enforcement action, there’ll be no consequences if you’re wrong.’ ”
It surprised Sandweg that the Ramirez case had advanced at all. In the past, “this case would have been dumped very, very quickly. Mid-level supervisors wouldn’t have moved forward with this.” I asked him if the order to pursue a protracted court fight in this case might have come from high up in the department. “During my time in D.H.S., Secretary Napolitano”—the former head of D.H.S.—“would read the clips every morning. If there were news stories about things that were unusual, she’d start asking questions,” he said. “Within an hour or two, we’d get information about the case. So, if you’re asking me how high it goes, political leadership clearly has made a conscious decision not to drop the case.”
While the Trump Administration may preserve DACA on paper, honoring the policy in practice would require being clear about who is and isn’t a priority for detention by immigration agents.
“When you write these priorities, you want to give officers discretion, but you also need to be very specific,” Escobar, the former Obama adviser, told me. The new Administration, in Escobar’s view, has taken the opposite approach, leaving enforcement priorities deliberately open-ended. “The way the Administration has drafted its implementation memos and executive orders, they are being as broad as they can possibly get in defining priorities, which can be interpreted however agents want,” she said. “The whole point of DACA was to direct resources to high-priorities and away from low-priorities so that we could be taking real public-safety threats off the street. By saying that any DACA recipient can be declared a public-safety threat on the spot, without doing anything to be characterized in this way, defeats DACA’s purpose.”
On Tuesday afternoon, a federal judge finally agreed to hear Ramirez’s petition for habeas corpus. That does not mean Ramirez will be immediately released, only that his case can be heard in full by a federal court. Two weeks after he was arrested, as D.H.S. was issuing public statements about him, Ramirez gave a second sworn declaration in which he pleaded for the opportunity “to fight my case so that I can clear my name.” He’ll have that chance, though, at least for now, he’ll stand before the court newly undocumented—his DACA status will remain revoked unless the government decides to reinstate it, or allows him to reapply to the program. “This case is not just about me,” he wrote in an Op-Ed earlier this week. “Hundreds of thousands of dreamers are questioning just what sort of protection the government’s promise provides.”