Griselda Flores is a writer based in Chicago. She reports on social justice issues as part of the Social Justice News Nexus at the Medill School of Journalism.
A Guatemalan immigrant is facing deportation after his association with a city gang database. Except the police now concede they wrongly dubbed him in a gang.
Chicago prides itself on being a welcoming city for undocumented immigrants, and has challenged President Donald Trump’s efforts to withhold funds from so-called sanctuary cities. But even in Chicago, that sanctuary has significant limits.
A controversial database maintained by the city that purports to track gang membership has ensnared at least one immigrant who the city now admits was wrongly designated a gang member. Mere inclusion on the list can be reason for Chicago police to report an immigrant to federal immigration officials, even without any criminal charges or convictions. Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez is now facing deportation after he was allegedly flagged for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) based the database.
The admission by Chicago police is a significant revelation for immigration advocates who have long said the gang database was over-inclusive, and introduces a potentially gaping loophole into Chicago’s sanctuary city policy. It also sheds limited light on a secret city list that implicates hundreds of thousands of residents in wrongdoing without giving them an opportunity to challenge the determination. In many cases they don’t even know they’re on the database.
“We have CPD admitting that they made a mistake for Wilmer and we know they didn’t just make a mistake for Wilmer. There are a lot of Wilmers out there,” said Vanessa del Valle, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center and one of Catalan-Ramirez’s attorneys.
Catalan-Ramirez is a 31-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who has been in jail facing deportation since a federal raid on his home last winter. In a lawsuit, Catalan-Ramirez alleges that ICE agents targeted him because of his inclusion in Chicago's gang database. While Chicago’s sanctuary law limits police cooperation with immigration agents, it does permit police to share information about immigrants who are thought to be gang members even if they have not been charged with any crime.
The problem with the gang database is that it is sweeping in scope, disproportionately includes Latinx and African Americans, and, advocates have long contended, include many individuals who the city has no evidence are actually gang members.
In Catalan-Ramirez’s case, the city sent a letter admitting it did not have evidence of its gang membership only after Catalan-Ramirez’s family filed a lawsuit in May against the city.
“If the city claims to be a sanctuary city, let’s make sure that it actually means something,”says Xanat Sobrevilla with the Chicago group Organized Communities Against Deportation. “It shouldn’t allow the city to be complicit in raids and contribute to this deportation machine.”
Data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that the city’s gang database, part of the police department’s Citizen and Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting (CLEAR) system, includes nearly 130,000 names. Of those, 90,200 people are identified as Black and nearly 32,000 are identified as Hispanic.
Based on 2016 Census data, that means 11.4 percent of the city’s entire black population is included in the database, 4 percent of the Hispanic population, and only 0.57 percent of the white population.
A shooting and a raid
Shortly before Catalan-Ramirez’s home was raided, he was the victim of a drive-by shooting that left him partially paralyzed. This makes him eligible for a special visa to stay in the country known as a U-Visa.
On January 15, as he was leaving a restaurant, he sustained multiple gunshot wounds, a traumatic brain injury, and partial paralysis on his left side. No arrests were made and the investigation is still ongoing, according to his lawyers.
Two months after the shooting, seven ICE agents raided Catalan-Ramirez’s home and forcibly arrested him while he was still recovering from his injuries. “They forced their way into my home,” says Celene Adame, Wilmer’s partner and mother of their three U.S.-born children. “They slammed him on the floor in front of our 3-year-old son.”
Since then, Catalan-Ramirez has been detained by ICE. He alleges that he has not received adequate medical care at the McHenry County Jail north of Chicago, and has continued to suffer from his injuries.
While Catalan-Ramirez’s lawyer says the police admission was a major development in his case, he has not been granted a U-Visa and may still be deported. His case is also complicated by a previous deportation in 2006.
At the very least, Catalan-Ramirez has now spent his Christmas in detention. The city has said in a letter it doesn’t object to granting Catalan-Ramirez a U-Visa, but it is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that must make the decision.
“We’re in a different time and climate and DHS is taking a really aggressive position,” said Claudia Valenzuela, detention project director at the National Immigrant Justice Center and one of Catalan-Ramirez’s immigration attorneys.
ICE did not respond to a request for comment.
No way off the list
The database that snagged Catalan-Ramirez, known as CLEAR, is one of two maintained by the city that track gang membership. Another, the Strategic Subject List (SSL), is used as a tool to predict who may be a perpetrator or victim of gun violence.
Like the CLEAR database, the majority of suspected gang members in the SSL are Black and Latinx. According to an analysis by the University of Illinois at Chicago, potential gang members listed in the SSL are 75 percent Black and 21 percent Latinx.
“These lists become a justification for deploying more police to target those same populations, and that has impacts on people’s lives, rights, and their ability to flourish in society,” said Andy Clarno, UIC associate professor of sociology and Black studies, who oversaw the research.
Chicago police officers’ criteria to include individuals in the CLEAR gang database include tattoos, self admission, using hand signals or being identified as a gang member by an officer.
Catalan-Ramirez isn’t the only one suing for his inclusion in the gang database. Undocumented immigrant Luis Pedrote-Salinas filed a lawsuit in July against the city and CPD alleging he was misidentified as a gang member after he was arrested in 2011 for purchase/possession of liquor as a minor. Seven months after the arrest, ICE raided his home on the Southwest Side of Chicago and placed him in a detention center where he spent six months. His case against CPD and the city is still ongoing.
Individuals who are added to the database aren’t notified by the Chicago Police Department. So people don’t even have reason to suspect they’ve been added until they suffer an adverse consequence. According to immigrant rights group Mijente, those consequences can include being denied employment or professional licenses, being flagged for deportation, or experiencing different treatment by police.
For those who do suspect they have been added to the list, the only way to find out is to submit a Freedom of Information Act request, or have a lawyer do it on your behalf. But other than filing a lawsuit like Catalan-Ramirez, there is no procedure for challenging inclusion on the database anyway.
There are still statewide gang databases in California and Oregon, and they, too, are racially skewed. But unlike in Chicago, individuals can challenge their inclusion on the CalGang database and potentially be removed.
The Portland Police Bureau recently discontinued its gang database after activists said it was used as a tool for racial profiling. An investigation by The Oregonian revealed that 81 percent of the people included on the database were racial or ethnic minorities. In October, Portland police announced that because the gang database had led to “unintended consequences,” they would halt all gang designations.
Fear of increasing federal reliance on proprietary data collection and the potential impact on immigrants is prompting some cities to think about expanding their definition of “sanctuary city” to include some digital protections, though there is no indication Chicago is considering such provisions.
Activist organizations like Mijente and Black Youth Project 100 have been advocating to eliminate both gang databases and shift city resources to community building.
“We urge City Council and the Mayor to eliminate this list and work on solutions for our communities that invest in resources and real solutions to reduce violence,” said Tania Unzueta, policy director of Mijente.
How police decide you’re in a gang
Under Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance, signed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012, Chicago police cannot share information with ICE or turn someone over to immigration agents based on their immigration status.
But there are major exceptions. If someone has an outstanding criminal warrant, has been convicted of a felony, has an open felony case or has been identified as a known gang member, the sanctuary provision does not apply, as spelled out in the ordinance.
Catalan-Ramirez had two previous encounters with Chicago police, which may have led to his inclusion in the gang database. According to legal documents, in 2015 he was stopped for loitering with another individual in an area known for gang and drug activity by the Latin Saints gang.
And in 2016, police pulled him over for allegedly failing to stop at a stop sign. He was arrested for the traffic violation and for driving on a suspended license.
Police filled out “contact cards” for each encounter, as revealed in documents obtained by Organized Communities Against Deportations. Police use such contact cards to keep records of interactions with people on the street, and often note suspected gang affiliation. The contact cards identified Catalan-Ramirez as a member of two rival gangs: Latin Saints and Satan Disciples. Adame says Catalan-Ramirez has never been in a gang.
On December 7, the city of Chicago partially settled Catalan-Ramirez’s lawsuit. Under the settlement, his name won’t be erased from the database, but police will upload the letter into the system “to indicate that the prior records are not accurate,” explains del Valle. Catalan-Ramirez is continuing to allege inadequate medical treatment in jail as part of the federal civil rights lawsuit, and for now, he still faces deportation.
“I fear for his life,” said Adame of his medical care. “I’m scared he won’t come back home to his children if he stays locked up.”