Students

Undocumented Students’ Fears Escalate After a DACA Recipient’s Arrest

February 16, 2017

Joe Raedle, Getty Images
Protesters rallied in Homestead, Fla., in November, soon after Donald Trump’s election as president, to oppose his threatened immigration crackdown. For undocumented college students, the arrest last week of a Mexican immigrant who had been granted protections under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is raising new alarm.
The arrest and threatened deportation of a 23-year-old Mexican immigrant who was brought to the country illegally when he was 7 — but had a valid work permit under President Obama’s deferred-action program — has rekindled the fears of undocumented college students nationwide.

After the election, many people were alarmed by the prospect that President Trump would make good on his campaign pledge to eliminate the program, which is known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. More recently, they’ve been heartened by his vague assurances that he wouldn’t be going after them. Now, however, after hearing the news of a DACA beneficiary’s arrest, they’re not so sure.

“People like Daniel came forward, submitted applications, passed background checks, and earned a temporary reprieve from deportation and work authorization. To detain him now isn't just senseless, it's cruel.”
Some were already on edge after immigration sweeps in at least six cities rounded up hundreds of immigrants who lacked legal authorization to be in the country. Such raids were nothing new; they’d occurred frequently under President Barack Obama, whose terms coincided with the deportations of some 2.5 million people.

But it was the arrest of one of their own — an immigrant who, like them, received protection from deportation — that brought those fears close to home.

The program, which the Obama administration put in place by executive action in 2012, has allowed about 750,000 immigrants to study and work in this country on two-year renewable terms. Daniel Ramirez Medina, who has a 3-year-old child and reportedly has no criminal record, is one of them. He’s believed to be the first such immigrant to be detained since President Trump took office. He had a valid work permit and was working to save up money to "continue his schooling," according to a lawsuit filed on his behalf in federal court in Seattle.

In the lawsuit, Mr. Ramirez’s lawyers call his arrest "unprecedented and unjustified" and express hope that it was a mistake.

Officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement took Mr. Ramirez into custody on Friday outside of Seattle at the home of his father, whom they described as a felon who had been deported before. Mr. Ramirez is being held in a detention center in Tacoma, Wash.

A ‘Climate of Fear’

Kamal Essaheb, policy and advocacy director for the National Immigration Law Center, accused President Trump and his Republican supporters of creating a "climate of fear" in immigrant communities.

"People like Daniel came forward, submitted applications, passed background checks, and earned a temporary reprieve from deportation and work authorization," Mr. Essaheb said. "To detain him now isn’t just senseless, it’s cruel."

A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in an email to The Chronicle on Wednesday, that officers took Mr. Ramirez into custody "based on his admitted gang affiliation and risk to public safety." His lawyers have denied any such affiliation, saying ICE officers pressured him into saying he was in a gang.

That distinction could prove to be important. If he is a gang member, immigration lawyers say, his DACA protections could be rescinded.

A federal judge on Tuesday asked the government to explain why Mr. Ramirez was being detained, "given that he has been granted deferred action" under the program. A hearing is scheduled for Friday.

"The agents who arrested and questioned Mr. Ramirez were aware that he was a DACA recipient," the petition his lawyers filed with the court reads, "yet they informed him that he would be arrested, detained, and deported anyway because he was ‘not born in this country.’"

Mark D. Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel, the pro-bono law firm that helped file the lawsuit in Seattle, issued a statement saying that the DACA program had created a "clear and reasonable expectation" of protection from arrest and deportation.

"Hopefully, this arrest is simply a mistake and not a dark harbinger for worse to come," he said.

Laurence H. Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School who is helping represent Mr. Ramirez, said in an email to The Chronicle that the message the Trump administration is sending to DACA recipients is "a dismal and frightening one. It’s telling them that this government isn’t committed to living up to the promises the Obama administration made to these recipients to induce them to come out from under the shadows."

The Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, which is also helping represent Mr. Ramirez, sought to allay such fears, tweeting that his arrest appeared to be an isolated incident "and not an indication that ICE is going after DACA recipients."

Immigration officials have insisted that despite the widespread panic the recent raids caused, they were going about business as usual. Most, but not all, of the people arrested had criminal records.

Like his predecessor, President Trump has said his priority will be in deporting criminals. However, one of his executive orders greatly expands the scope of what constitutes deportable offenses to include minor infractions, even if they didn’t result in convictions. Getting pulled over for a traffic violation or overstaying one’s visa could also result in deportation.

Until recently, most DACA recipients didn’t lose sleep over such possibilities.

But their fears worsened after Mr. Trump issued an executive order last month that blocked visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries and all refugees. DACA recipients joined forces with Muslim students in solidarity against deportations. The Muslim ban is currently on hold while it faces several lawsuits.

Living in Limbo

While their futures remain uncertain, some undocumented students are casting their hopes on a bipartisan bill called the Bridge Act. It would provide them with work authorization and extended protections from deportation even if their DACA permits expire.

Meanwhile, many are growing tired of living in limbo.

Sheila Salinas, who graduated in December from California State University at Long Beach, becomes emotional when she describes the impact that a DACA repeal could have on her life. Over the Christmas holidays, she traveled with a group of undocumented students to Mexico to reconnect with relatives they hadn’t seen since they were young children.

“Are we going to be worried every day that they might come to our house and knock on our door and try to deport us?”
Her trip was arranged by the California-Mexico Study Center at the Long Beach campus, where she now works. The center had been planning similar trips for other DACA recipients, but now such travel is considered too risky.

If DACA permits expire, recipients could lose their jobs. "What are we going to do once we don’t have that work permit?" Ms. Salinas asked. "Are we going to be worried every day that they might come to our house and knock on our door and try to deport us?"

Without DACA, she won’t be able to pay taxes or work in a job where she can give back to her community, she added. Ms. Salinas, who majored in business administration, also works as a caregiver for a 97-year-old woman and one day hopes to open an assisted-living center that meets the social and cultural needs of Latino families.

Meanwhile, she’s savoring the memories of the time she had over the holidays in Chalco, Mexico, in the home where she was born, staying up until midnight sharing stories with her grandparents, eating her aunt’s homemade Oaxacan tamales.

Karla Perez, a law student at University of Houston, said DACA became a "personal sanctuary" since her undergraduate days.

She said she plans to continue fighting to keep the program and "to make sure that our communities, whether they have DACA or not, whether they are students or not, are able to live safely in this country."

Lupe Ambrosio received DACA benefits while she was attending Borough of Manhattan Community College, part of the City University of New York, but the stress of being undocumented coupled with academic pressure led her to drop out last fall.

Life for undocumented students, even with the opportunities granted by DACA, can still be full of challenges, she said.

"I was looking at myself and looking and the education system and thinking, do I belong in this system?" Ms. Ambrosio said. "It’s not easy to get straight A’s when you’re having difficulty finding housing or having difficulty finding transportation and getting to school."

“This is becoming a very real thing for a lot of us. It's happening.”
Meanwhile, not far from the site of Mr. Ramirez’s arrest, Carlos Rodriguez is finishing his last semester at Seattle University. He’s become an advocate on campus for undocumented students, pinning a red letter "U" on his chest to bring his long-held secret to the open — he himself is undocumented.

"I could not go to sleep last night," Mr. Rodriguez said after hearing about the DACA recipient who was arrested. "I live on the Seattle U campus and I think about what’s going to happen after I graduate and I’m not an undocumented student anymore, I’m just an undocumented person not protected by student status."

Protesters were planning to show up at the Tacoma detention center on Wednesday, but Mr. Rodriguez said it would be too risky for him to participate.

He said he received a lot of messages on Tuesday, after Mr. Ramirez’s arrest made headlines, from other undocumented students.

"This is becoming a very real thing for a lot of us," he said. "It’s happening."

Alex Arriaga contributed to this article.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.