The arrest of an undocumented immigrant who was granted a work permit under Obama has sparked fears among other recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) program and prompted a judge to demand an explanation from the government.
Daniel Ramirez Medina, a 23-year-old with no criminal record who was brought to the US from Mexico when he was seven years old, was taken into custody last Friday in Seattle. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) officers made the arrest at his father’s house, despite the fact that Medina, who has a three-year-old son, has twice been granted an employment authorization card under the Daca program.
The detention of the “dreamer”, as Daca recipients are known, appears to be the first of its kind since Donald Trump took office. Medina’s lawyers have since filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Homeland Security alleging unlawful seizure and detention, leading chief US magistrate judge James Donohue to order the government to justify its actions.
Donohue wrote in a Tuesday filing, ordering that the government respond by 9am on Thursday: “If petitioner is still detained and removal proceedings have not been initiated against him, what is the basis for Ice’s authority to detain him?”
If the Trump administration is moving to deport recipients of Daca – which protects 750,000 people who were brought to the US as children and granted temporary work permits – it would constitute a massive crackdown on undocumented people and would contradict the president’s recent statements saying dreamers “shouldn’t be very worried”.
While some have suggested that Ramirez’s detention could be a fluke or the action of a rogue agent, David Leopold, a leading immigration lawyer, said the fact that he had been detained for several days already suggested that it was not an error, but part of a broader policy.
If that’s the case, he said, “this is the blueprint for mass deportation. Their enforcement priorities are so broad they include everybody.”
Coupled with the recent Ice raids, “It adds up to a new policy that we’re going to remove anybody we can get our hands on,” said Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
It’s unclear at this time what risk Medina faces for deportation. Ice spokeswoman Rose Richeson claimed in an email that he was a “self-admitted gang member” who was arrested “based on his admitted gang affiliation and risk to public safety”.
Mark Rosenbaum, one of Ramirez’s attorneys, strongly refuted the allegation, saying in a statement: “Mr Ramirez unequivocally denies being in a gang. While in custody, he was repeatedly pressured by [Ice] agents to falsely admit affiliation.”
Leopold noted that Ramirez has twice passed extensive background checks when he was approved from Daca and had his status renewed. “With the vetting for Daca, the bar is really high.”
Agents had an arrest warrant for Ramirez’s father, and Ramirez was asleep at his house when officers arrived. Ice agents asked Ramirez: “Are you legally here?” and when he explained that he had a work permit, officers took him in, according to his lawsuit. At a processing center, when Ramirez again told agents about his Daca status, an officer allegedly replied: “It doesn’t matter, because you weren’t born in this country.”
Ramirez was transferred to a detention center where he is awaiting the outcome of “removal proceedings” before an immigration judge, according to Richeson.
Madeleine Villanueva, a student at the University of California, Berkeley and a Daca recipient who moved from the Philippines at age nine, said it was hard to imagine that the arrest of Ramirez was a “mistake”.
“I think it was a message to the states or cities that are more willing to set up those sanctuary spaces for undocumented immigrants,” said Villanueva, who is part of a group called Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education. “Hopefully more of this doesn’t happen, but I’m not surprised that it did.”
Regardless of the fate of Daca, Villanueva said she was concerned for undocumented people like her father who weren’t protected by the program: “Even before Trump was elected, Daca was never the solution for me or my community. It always left people behind.”
The Seattle case has caused widespread anxiety for undocumented students, said María Blanco, executive director of the University of California’s Undocumented Student Legal Services Center: “There’s a combination of fear and tremendous anger about the breaking of a promise.”
If it turns out that Trump is targeting Daca with a new policy, the backlash and organizing would be monumental, Blanco predicted.
“There’s tremendous sympathy for this population,” she said. “You are going to have a huge political blowback.”