A federal magistrate judge in Seattle on Tuesday denied a request from an undocumented immigrant who has been detained for over a month despite his status under former President Barack Obama’s policy exempting from deportation certain young non-citizens who have no criminal record or pose a security risk.
With the help of a chorus of lawyers and immigrant rights advocates, Daniel Ramirez Medina challenged the legality of his detention under that policy, but President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice said the 24-year-old had no right to bring the case in the first place ― in part because someone without legal status belongs in immigration court.
Giving a little bit to both sides in the dispute, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Donahue, who sits in the Western District of Washington, declined the Trump administration’s bid to throw out the case, but at the same time declined Ramirez’s plea to release him while the underlying court case moves forward in federal court.
“We are pleased that the court rejected the government’s effort to evade judicial review,” Theodore Boutrous, one of the lawyers in Ramirez’s legal team, said in a statement. “This is an important ruling because one of the core purposes of habeas corpus is to ensure judicial review of executive detentions and hold the executive branch accountable.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Ramirez on Feb. 10, amid a week-long wave of enforcement efforts that immigrants and advocates feared was a harbinger of things to come under the new president’s plan to expand deportation. Ramirez’s case drew nationwide attention as the first reported incidence under Trump of ICE officers apprehending a current recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which since 2012 has provided conditional deportation reprieve to those who qualify for it.
Ramirez’s lawyers also warned that the case could set an important precedent for how the new administration treats the estimated 800,000 DACA recipients who fear they may be similarly detained or deported ― and what legal protections, if any, their temporary, quasi-legal status gives them in the absence of Congress providing a permanent solution.
“When this case is concluded, it could result in a determination that the ICE officers acted improperly by taking Petitioner into custody and questioning him even after they discovered that he was a DACA beneficiary,” Donahue wrote in his 46-page decision, which now goes to a federal judge for review. “Alternatively, it could result in a determination that although DACA establishes a basis for lawful presence in the United States, it does not create a constitutionally protected liberty interest, and the actions of the ICE officers were constitutionally appropriate. These questions are not yet before the Court.”
The judge also recognized that a system where immigration authorities could simply pick up anyone with DACA status and later put them in deportation proceedings without access to federal courts could leave them stranded in an administrative regime where cases take a long time to be resolved.
“Instead, the non-citizen so arrested would be forced into a labyrinthine immigration process, possibly lasting multiple years, and into a process where the immigration authorities would be unable to even review the constitutional claims asserted,” Donahue wrote.
Donahue gave the federal government and Ramirez’s attorneys until March 28 to file any objections to his ruling, which may be approved in whole or in part by U.S. Chief District Judge Ricardo Martinez, who is handling the case. Because Ramirez is still detained and his case could have an impact on similar cases in the future, the judge also recommended that the rest of the case be put on a fast track for a speedier resolution.
Boutrous said he and the other lawyers in the case plan to “immediately” contest the part of Donahue’s ruling that declined Ramirez’s temporary release.
In the wake of Ramirez’s arrest and the alarm it raised from immigration advocates, ICE officials said agents went to a residence to apprehend a convicted felon but in the process apprehended Ramirez ― despite his DACA status and his lack of a criminal record. Department of Homeland Security officials said that he was a “self-admitted gang member” and that DHS has revoked DACA from about 1,500 people since the inception of the program in 2012 based on criminal convictions or gang affiliation.
But Ramirez and his lawyers disputed that gang member designation and said that ICE leveled the accusation as cover for an arrest they never should have made. After his arrest, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also revoked Ramirez’s DACA status and work authorization, and he was then placed in deportation proceedings.
In a court filing, Ramirez said that before his initial arrest, ICE agents questioned him repeatedly about gang affiliation and he eventually said that he had hung out with a few people who may have been gang members in the past, but had not talked to them in years. Ramirez said they also questioned him on his tattoo, which an ICE agent called a “gang tattoo” in an arrest report. But Ramirez said its inscription, “La Paz BCS,” stands for his birthplace, the capital city of Baja California Sur. An expert also submitted a declaration to the court indicating that the tattoo had no connections to any gangs.
Trump has kept in place the DACA program, even though he made ending it a central campaign promise. He and administration officials have also said that DACA recipients are not targets for enforcement, and that they will focus first on deporting criminals.
Meanwhile, Trump’s administration expanded its priority guidelines to make nearly any undocumented person a target for removal. This has swept up some DACA recipients and other so-called Dreamers, a term for young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. Several DACA recipients have since been released; others, like Ramirez, haven’t been so lucky.
In a Washington Post op-ed published Monday, Ramirez wrote of his legal predicament — which includes spending his 24th birthday in detention.
“I am hopeful that I will have a future in this country, but I know that this case is not just about me,” Ramirez wrote in the column. “Hundreds of thousands of dreamers are questioning just what sort of protection the government’s promise provides. If I can be arrested and detained without any evidence, what will happen to them?”