A protester outside a U.S. District Court in Seattle on Friday during a rally in support of DACA recipient Daniel Ramirez. David Ryder/AP

Immigration rights advocates fear that gang membership will be an easy way to criminalize whole groups of people.

This story was first published in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

A week ago, federal immigration authorities arrested and detained 23-year-old Daniel Ramirez, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient in Des Moines, Washington. The arrest—possibly the first such arrest under the Trump administration—has spurred panic in the immigrant advocacy community, fueling speculation that even DACA recipients won’t be safe from the large-scale deportations President Trump promised throughout his campaign.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) maintains that it arrested Ramirez despite his DACA status because he is a “self-admitted gang member,” according to a statement by Rose Richeson, a spokesperson for the agency. “ICE officers took Mr. Ramirez into custody based on his admitted gang affiliation and risk to public safety,” the statement said. On Tuesday, the government revoked Ramirez’s DACA protection and began his deportation proceedings, even as his suit against the federal government went to court Friday morning.

It’s true that membership in a gang would classify Ramirez as a threat to public safety and render him ineligible for DACA. It’s also true that this case does not necessarily represent a shift in policy for the Trump administration toward DACA recipients. Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, told The Stranger that he thinks the arrest is not a deliberate move to go after DACA recipients, but instead likely a one-off arrest carried out simply because Ramirez was nearby when they were arresting his father.

“[ICE] is returning to some of the old tactics of the Bush administration where they go after anyone else they encounter,” Barón said. That’s what’s known as a “collateral arrest,” and it can be scary for immigrant communities—but it doesn’t signal that DACA recipients are being targeted in a sweeping policy.

Still, what is troubling in this context is the use of gang affiliation to justify this particular arrest. Is it possible to know for sure whether Ramírez is truly a gang member? Decades of police work have shown gang affiliation to be a loose, inconsistent categorization that’s hard to get right. ICE has been using it to deport undocumented immigrants for years, to some criticism. Using it to revoke a person’s DACA protection raises all the same ethical questions that have riddled policing around gangs since the 90’s.   

Gang databases are riddled with error and might violate privacy rights

Different municipal police departments have different methods of determining who is a gang member. One of the most well-known—and problematic—are the gang databases maintained by many states and by ICE itself. Perhaps the most notorious is California’s CalGang, which contains the names and information of 150,000 suspected members and associates. The database, along with gang injunctions (or court orders that restrict the movement and behavior of alleged gang members), form the cornerstone of California’s fight against street gangs, particularly in Los Angeles.    

But a report by the California state auditor in 2016 found that CalGang is rife with errors, unfounded entries, and hundreds of names that should have been purged years ago. The Los Angeles Times reports that 42 people in the database were found to be younger than 1 year old at the time they were entered; of those, 28 were added for “admitting to being gang members.”

Police in several counties were also adding juveniles to the database without notifying them and their parents and allowing them time to appeal the decision, as required by law. What’s more, the auditor found that the information stored in the database could be violating individuals’ privacy rights. The database is overwhelmingly made up of people of color: 64.9 percent Latino and 20.5 percent black.

This error-riddled database is the most comprehensive information available in the state about who might be a gang member—besides, of course, the individual judgments of officers in their everyday policing. In Los Angeles, gang injunctions have become a large part of that formula: Police might see someone walking down the street or stop them for something unrelated, deduce that this person is gang-affiliated in some way, and slap them with an injunction that determines what they can wear and where they can gather.

ICE can sometimes be involved in that process, partnering with local police to detain and deport suspected gang members. The Intercept has reported about the way that gang injunctions, which have been criticized for violating civil liberties by the ACLU, have been used to detain and deport undocumented immigrants. This piece tells the story of an anonymous immigrant (called Carlos in the story) who was placed under a gang injunction in Los Angeles based on a tattoo of an “M” and “S” on his arm. Carlos said that he got those tattoos as a young adolescent in Guatemala City, when he was, he admitted, a member of Mara Salvatrucha, an international gang with large membership in Los Angeles. But Carlos maintained he had never been active in the gang while living in this country. Even so, he was arrested several times over nearly a decade for violating his gang injunction; eventually, LAPD agents facilitated a run-in with ICE that led to his detainment.

Carlos was eventually freed and granted relief from removal, based on inconsistencies in ICE and LAPD records of his supposed gang membership. But he is certainly not the only person who has been accused of gang affiliation and funneled into deportation proceedings via interaction with local police.

Advocates say ICE uses gang membership to deny due process

States are not the only entities to use databases to identify gang members—ICE has its own, ICEGangs. It contains an unknown number of “suspected and confirmed” gang members from throughout the country; all of those people are ineligible for DACA protection, and are certainly priorities for deportation under Trump’s administration, as they were under Obama’s.

Classification as a gang member makes it difficult to plead your immigration case, according to some advocates. Many times, accused gang members are denied bond on the basis of their threat to public safety. “I was representing one individual in his hearing who had been on a gang injunction and had already had a bond hearing and was denied bond, partly on the basis of his gang membership,” Sean Garcia-Leyes of the UC Irvine Immigrant Rights Clinic told The Intercept.  

It’s also nearly impossible to fight that designation, or deny gang affiliation, Erika Pinheiro, an immigration lawyer at the Central American Resource Center, told the New York Times. “Once you’re in [ICE custody], the chances of getting out of being called a designated gang member are next to nothing,” she said. “You’re really going to sweep up the most vulnerable people, and you have to imagine how many people are going to be railroaded into the system without due process.”

This is the context in which Daniel Ramirez was arrested and accused by ICE of gang affiliation. Ramirez has no arrest record in Des Moines, Doug Jenkins, a spokesman for Des Moines Police Department, told CityLab. “We have never had any contact with him,” he said. Jenkins said that ICE notified the department they would be in Des Moines last Friday as a courtesy, but no Des Moines officers were involved or even present at Ramirez’s arrest.

New details emerged yesterday detailing ICE’s case against Ramirez. Despite his lack of arrests by local police, Ramirez appears to have been detained and held once before at a detention center in Tukwila, Washington, where he was questioned about a “gang tattoo” on his arm. Ramirez answered that he was not involved in gang activity anymore, had fled California to escape from the gangs, but that he “still hangs out with the Paizas in Washington State.”

Ramirez’s lawyers maintain that he is not currently a gang member, asserting that he was pressured into giving a false confession at the time of his arrest.

Regardless of what’s true in this case, one thing is certain: Ramirez’s petition to stay in this country is made significantly harder now that he’s been tied to a gang.

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