Seattle attorney behind Dreamer case is a Dreamer himself
Seattle area immigration attorney Luis Cortes knew this was a case he had to take.
But he never guessed that his client, Daniel Ramirez Medina, would become the face of a high-profile legal fight about the rights of all "Dreamers" enrolled in the federal program for young undocumented immigrants.
Cortes has a lot on the line with this case currently in federal court in Seattle, and it's deeply personal.
“Daniel and I … we both had immediate family members who were deported when we were younger,” said Cortes at his office in Kent. “We felt that absence and we battled through that.”
Like his client, Cortes is undocumented.
And like his client, Cortes came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child and now has temporary permission to live and work here through the DACA program, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
President Donald Trump has threatened to end the program, and Dreamers across the country are looking to Ramirez's case for clarity about whether DACA can still protect from them from deportation.
'They’re taking my brother'
The call came into the law office early on a Friday morning, from Ramirez’s brother. He said immigration agents had come with a warrant for their father and ended up arresting 23-year-old Daniel, too. The brother, Tony Ramirez, recorded part of the arrest on his cell phone.
“They’re taking my brother,” Tony Ramirez said, camera shaking as he walked into a parking lot where agents escorted Ramirez away in handcuffs.
“They’re taking my brother for no reason at all," Tony Ramirez narrated into the phone. "They’re not supposed to take him. They do not have a warrant for him.”
Then Tony Ramirez started calling lawyers. Some put him off, saying they'd get back to him on Monday. After a few calls he reached Cortes’s receptionist, and minutes later she sent this question to her boss, “Is ICE picking up Dreamers now?”
The receptionist told Cortes the brother sounded panicked, so the attorney returned the call right away.
“I said, 'You know, sometimes these things happen where someone gets picked up by accident,'” Cortes told him. “He’s probably going to be let go.”
Cortes figured immigration officials would see that Ramirez was a DACA recipient and release him. Ramirez came here at age 7 and was approved for DACA twice – in 2014 and 2016. DACA recipients must pass criminal background checks, work or be enrolled in school and meet other criteria. Nearly 800,000 people are currently enrolled in the program.
Later that afternoon, the brother called Cortes again, telling him that his brother was being moved to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
"I know from my experience that once ICE has decided to take someone down to the detention center it’s because something went wrong," Cortes said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, claimed Ramirez admitted to gang affiliation, which would cancel his DACA status.
His attorneys refuted that claim. They said Ramirez has a clean record, no gang ties, and his detention was unconstitutional.
“I started really thinking, what if I was in that position as well?” Cortes said. “As a DACA recipient, I also just had it as a given that if I have DACA status, they can't pick me up and they can't detain me. Certainly that’s an assumption that I think all DACA recipients have. But this case really outlines there's nothing that says that.”
That’s why Cortes and others want a clear ruling that DACA holders are safe from arrest, unless they commit a crime or doing something that violates the DACA rules.
Ramirez's detention sent a chill through the immigrant community. Crowds rallied in New York, Seattle and other cities.
Then ICE detained more Dreamers, and people wondered if DACA still offered any protection.
‘People see us as Mexican kids’
Daniel Ramirez spent more than six weeks at the Tacoma detention center.
Luis Cortes visited him almost daily, nervous at first that his own DACA status could be a liability.
“There have been a lot of times where I'm thinking, ‘I could go to the detention center to see Daniel, and then I could just not leave,’” Cortes said. “I'm thinking, at any given moment, it’s just, ‘Please put your hands behind your back’ and this is it.”
Initially, Ramirez was reserved, Cortes said.
“He was very afraid,” he said. “There was a lot going into his mind and he really just didn't know what to do.”
Cortes pulled out his own work permit from the DACA program and said, "Look I have one, too."
“All of the sudden, Daniel started talking about the reality of him being sent to a country that he has absolutely no idea about, and the terror of that possibility,” Cortes said.
Cortes, 28, can relate to that feeling. He was 2 years old when his parents moved to California from Michoacán. He’s never returned to his birth country.
As the detention visits continued, Cortes and Ramirez found common ground.
They’re both the oldest children in their families. They both grew up in California and later moved to Washington state. They both got tattoos of their homeland, to which their mothers fiercely objected. (And it’s Ramirez’s tattoo that apparently led ICE to question him about potential gang ties.)
They also both grew up with adults telling them what to do if la migra (immigration) came around. They were told to run. Cortes shakes his head — "terrible advice," he said.
In those talks, Cortes said they got close.
“We started talking about how we are battling with our identities," Cortes said. "The first thing that people see with Daniel and me are Mexican kids. You know, we’re Mexican kids. So that's our identity right off the bat. But the way that we see ourselves is very much American.”
The paths that led them to this moment look similar at the start, but end up in different places.
Ramirez’s father was deported when he was in 10th grade. Ramirez dropped out of high school and went to work picking fruit with his mom to help pay the bills.
Cortes also had a parent deported when he was young. Later, he became the first in his family to graduate from high school and the first to attend college. He started out as a teacher and met a lot students like Ramirez, with a parent deported and struggling. Frustrated, and wanting to do more, Cortes looked to law school.
“To me law was very out of reach, super out of reach,” he said. “I didn't know anybody who was a lawyer. But I started looking into, you know, and thought I might be able to at least apply.”
Cortes ended up at the University of Idaho. Money was tight and he wasn’t eligible for financial aid because of his status. He borrowed books when others were done with them and studied late at night.
Then, in his first year at school, he read about a lawyer who was unable to work because of his undocumented status.
“I was in middle of nowhere in northern Idaho where it's snowing and I'm by myself, and I'm trying to cram through all these books and trying to figure out how I'm going to pay tuition,” Cortes recalled. “Like, what am I doing?”
He was sitting in his car, crying angry tears and feeling that, once again, a piece of his life here was being ripped away from him.
His mom gave him some tough love.
“You go in there and you finish that school,” she told him over the phone. “After that, if you have to work construction, you'll be one of the smartest construction workers out there. You don't come back here without finishing it.”
DACA came out right before he graduated.
“For better or for worse, my status is something that has led my path for sure,” Cortes said. “It led me to Idaho. It led me through a lot of the work that I'm doing. It led me to taking on Daniel's case at such an immediate time. I have a lot of faith in DACA, and a lot of faith that people will see the benefit of it.”
But during his time in jail, Ramirez was on the verge of losing faith because he missed his young son so much. He told his attorney, "If I have to see my son in Mexico — I'm really starting to entertain that idea." His family didn't visit him in detention, and they rarely called — lawyers advised against it because detainees' calls are monitored.
Ultimately, Ramirez got out in late March. Cortes walked him out of the jail to a throng of media.
Ramirez speaks English, but he deliberately picked Spanish as he addressed some brief comments to the TV cameras.
Later, Cortes asked him why.
“I knew that my mom would be watching, and I wanted to send her a message,” Ramirez told his attorney.
Ramirez’s words: “I'm fine, I'm fine. Thank you everybody. I'm fine.”
Ramirez has since made a brief trip to California to visit his mom and his 3-year-old son.
His case is still pending in federal court in Seattle. A judge will decide if it has jurisdiction to hear the broader constitutional issues related to the DACA program.
Government attorneys argue it should proceed like any other deportation case, in immigration court.
Either way, these two American-raised, Mexican kids, plan to see this case through, together.