Since President Trump took office last month, the future of 750,000 young people living in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has become uncertain. On the campaign trail Trump vowed to repeal the Obama-era policy, which allows certain immigrants who arrived in the U.S. illegally as minors to work and go to school in the U.S. Although DACA does not offer a path to citizenship, it grants recipients a two-year deportation reprieve. Trump has adopted a slightly softer stance on the future of the program since the election than he did during the campaign, but a lack of clarity continues to stir questions for many DACA recipients, often known as “dreamers.”
Last Friday marked the first known case of a “dreamer” being taking into immigration custody during Trump’s presidency, according to Reuters. The 23-year-old Daniel Ramirez Medina was apprehended at his father’s home in Seattle after officials arrived to arrest his father, for whom they had a warrant to arrest, according to court documents. On Monday, Ramirez’s lawyers filed a lawsuit to challenge his detention in Seattle federal court. His hearing is set for Friday morning.
In a separate incident, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials took a second DACA recipient, 19-year-old Josué Romero, into custody in San Antonio on Wednesday. Romero was released Thursday evening, but Amy Fischer, the policy director of Raices, a legal-aid group that assisted in Romero’s release, said he should never have been held in the first place. “As a DACA student he should not be detained, period, he has legal status here,” she told The Guardian.
Ramirez, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was about 7 years old, was taken into custody “based on his admitted gang affiliation and risk to public safety,” a spokeswoman for ICE said in a statement provided to Reuters. Ramirez’s lawyers, however, said their client has denied being in a gang, and believe that it was Ramirez’s tattoo that raised immigration officials’ suspicion after he was already taken into custody. “The officers were accusing him over and over again that he was a gang member, ” one of his attorneys, Luis Cortes Romero told The Seattle Times. “He just kept denying it.” Ramirez has no criminal record, according to the lawsuit.
Part of DACA eligibility hinges on current or prior education in the United States, and a 2016 report indicated that 46 percent of “dreamers” were in school at the time of the survey. Prior to being taken into custody, Ramirez had recently moved from California to Washington to save money and continue his education, according to the lawsuit. His detention, which occurred during a series of ICE raids around the nation last week, has since caused increased concern among undocumented immigrant youth and their families. I spoke with Kamal Essaheb, the director of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Law Center, to find out what Ramirez’s detention means for “dreamers” and undocumented youth across the nation. (Essaheb and I did not discuss Romero’s case.) Our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, appears below.
Emily Goldberg: Since Trump hasn’t revoked DACA, on what legal grounds were immigration officials able to detain Mr. Ramirez? Court documents say Mr. Ramirez passed required background checks when he first applied for deferred action in 2014 and when he renewed his DACA status in 2016. In both instances it was determined he posed no threat to national security or public safety.
Kamal Essaheb: It’s not clear to me, from the facts as I understand them, what the basis is for his detention. I know that part of what the attorneys are trying to do in the case is to ask the court to release him because [the Department of Homeland Security] had not identified a basis for his detention. It’s not clear to me that they’ve issued him a notice to appear, which is a document that puts somebody in removal proceedings, and depending on the circumstances could justify the detention ... A fundamental part of our constitutional system is to protect people from losing their liberty without some really good reason. Here, I’m not hearing any reason why this person should be deprived of his freedom.
Goldberg: The lawsuit says that ICE agents who detained Mr. Ramirez claimed he was a self-identified gang member. His attorneys have denied this, but even if that’s true, does gang affiliation, without a criminal record, give immigration officials the right to lawfully detain and possibly deport him?
Essaheb: Under the priorities of the old administration, gang conviction is a basis for somebody to be a priority, but only under certain circumstances such as if the person was actually convicted of an offense, and that offense related to gang membership or gang activity. I think what we have here, which is how we read the entire interior enforcement executive order that the president signed on January 25, is this what happens when you have a shift to no prioritization for a law-enforcement agency, where anything and everything can be a basis to separate a family or deprive somebody of their liberty. I think what we’ve seen in this case, and frankly and what we saw in reaction to the Muslim ban executive order, is exactly the sort of chaos that we don’t want our government to contribute to, or to create.
Goldberg: Do other DACA recipients have reasonable cause to be concerned about being detained or deported?
Essaheb: A lot about this case indicates that we have a rogue agent or a rogue unit that’s doing this. It’s noteworthy that this person was detained—and it’s not even clear if he was put in deportation proceedings—yet wasn’t even the target of the immigration enforcement action. And once the case came to light, we have ICE saying after the fact, “Oh, he is a self-identified gang member.” [This] seems to be the only evidence they have of that allegation … and what they are using against him is effectively refuted by his attorney’s words, and his family’s words. But I think even if it is a rogue action that is not consistent with this new administration’s policy, even if that’s true, I think [Homeland Security Secretary John] Kelly and leadership of the department are responsible to make sure to make sure their agents are held accountable to enforcing policy. If this is not consistent with policy, than I think Secretary Kelly needs to grab the reins, and hold his agents accountable.
Goldberg: What’s to prevent ICE agents from going to a school, a bus stop, or any other place where young people might be in groups, and ask for proof of citizenship or question them?
Essaheb: What you’re describing would create the kind of chaos and fear in communities that would keep parents from sending their kids to school, that would make immigrants on a day-in-day-out basis look over their shoulder to see if they are safe. It is contrary to our values to put everyday members of our communities in that predicament where they have to think twice about sending their kids to school. After the weekend [ICE]raids, we heard from one teacher who joined a call we organized, and said, “I have a class of 22 and only eight people showed up today.” That was the Monday after the weekend.
So we don’t want to create that environment, we don’t want those spaces to be places where immigration enforcement is conducted, and that’s why we’ve had this sensitive-locations policy. In this policy, the Department of Homeland Security said there are places that we we need to have as off limits for immigration enforcement: churches, medical facilities, schools, because to the extent people think that these are places where immigration enforcement is going to happen it’s going to have a chilling effect with respect to people seeking medical assistance and the like.
We don’t know what this administration’s policy is with respect to sensitive locations. I’m not aware of an explicit breach of that policy to date. We’ve heard things like an ICE vehicle following a school bus; we’ve heard reports of ICE officers outside an adult education school asking students for their immigration paperwork. There was a story [Wednesday] night of a man who was arrested as he walked out of a church-based homeless shelter. We’re seeing indications of activity outside of these sensitive locations, but Secretary Kelly needs to be very clear that this policy remains in place because otherwise people are not going to feel safe walking around their communities.
Goldberg: But ICE agents still need a warrant, or a specific reason, to approach someone who they suspect is an undocumented immigrant, correct?
Goldberg: How can schools, whether it’s a K-12 campus or a college, protect their students who are DACA recipients?
Essaheb: They can do a few things. ICE relies on consent, and open access to do the bulk of its immigration enforcement. So, schools can do a few things. One, they could limit access to information about their students, unless [law-enforcement agencies] have a warrant. They could limit access to school grounds except if a law-enforcement agency goes through a process to make sure their presence on school grounds is consistent with the overall goals of the school to foster the kinds of environment where students can thrive and learn. The other thing is: Schools are places where educators can disseminate information about the rights of students with respect to immigration enforcement. Schools serve that purpose across the board as a place to disseminate information, particularly about rights.
Goldberg: What should DACA recipients do if they are approached by an ICE officer?
Essaheb: They should be aware of their rights and they should exercise them. Certainly, they shouldn’t sign anything without the advice of an attorney. They should feel free to assert their rights to speak to an attorney before being interrogated by an ICE officer, and they have the right to be silent. People should know information they give to law enforcement can be used against them—even saying something like, “I wasn’t born here,” or that they have a certain status. People should be truthful when asked for information by any law-enforcement officer, but they shouldn’t reveal anymore than they have to. Everyone has constitutional rights regardless of who is in the White House. It’s a fundamental part of who we are and what we are as a country.
Goldberg: What will happen to "dreamers" if Trump repeals DACA?
Essaheb: If this president eliminates the program we will just see a dramatic disruption to the lives of not only these people, but the lives of people around them. These are people who have mortgages. One in eight [DACA recipients] has purchased a home. A lot of them have car loans. These are people who are employees, and are people who are being relied upon every day by businesses big and small. There are going to be disruptions to the job market. There are going to be disruptions to credit markets. Sometimes these are people who are the primary wage-earners in their families. We’re going to have families that are sunk into poverty. Sometimes that they have younger siblings they are taking care of that are U.S. citizens. It’s hard to overstate the ripple effect. It’s not going to be just limited to just to the individual themselves, but it will reach the border community.
Goldberg: What would you say to DACA recipients right now who are worried either about their own legal status, or older family members who might not be covered under DACA?
Essaheb: There are a lot of people who are ready to fight for them. There are a lot of people who are ready to go out there and have their voice be heard to protect them from deportation. Many already have: elected officials [have spoken out], the Conference of Mayors passed the resolution in support of DACA recipients, faith communities have expressed support, the business community has expressed support. There are a lot of people who have their back. It’s a tough fight ahead, but there are a lot of people who are ready to fight with them.