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Medina v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

October 9, 2019

DANIEL RAMIREZ MEDINA, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER ON PENDING MOTIONS

          RICARDO S. MARTINEZ CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION[1]

         The Court does not endorse the Government's actions in this matter. Outwardly, the Government has pursued a nearly three-year vendetta against Plaintiff Daniel Ramirez Medina (“Mr. Ramirez”). Originally contacted by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) agents by happenstance, and despite his DACA status, [2] Mr. Ramirez was detained without any indication of criminal activity. Speculating that Mr. Ramirez was affiliated with gangs, ICE pursued removal proceedings and detained Mr. Ramirez for 47 days before finally conceding that he was not a threat to public safety and releasing him on bond. Nevertheless, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) asserted that ICE's actions automatically terminated Mr. Ramirez's DACA status.

         Legal action forced the Government to reinstate Mr. Ramirez's DACA status. But the Government immediately sought to terminate his DACA status, again relying on speculative arguments that he was a threat to public safety because of “gang affiliations.” When challenged before this Court, the Government provided no corroborating evidence. Finding the Government's actions baseless, the Court directed the Government to not consider statements purportedly alleging or establishing that “Mr. Ramirez is a gang member, gang affiliated, or a threat to public safety.”

         Mr. Ramirez's DACA status, however, was expiring. Believing that he was free from further harassment, Mr. Ramirez sought to renew his DACA status-generally a routine exercise. The Government used the opportunity to scrutinize Mr. Ramirez's background. After uncovering several-years-old and minor criminal transgressions that would not otherwise disqualify him for DACA, and seemingly against the individual adjudicator's conclusions, USCIS provided notice of its intent to deny Mr. Ramirez's application. USCIS indicated that the denial was not on the basis that he was a threat to public safety, but because his “offense history” made him unsuitable for favorable prosecutorial discretion (an apparently meaningless distinction). Once again faced with questionable treatment by the Government, Mr. Ramirez came before this Court.[3]

         Mr. Ramirez seeks a preliminary injunction restoring his DACA status and protecting him from further discrimination at the hands of the Government.[4] The Government maintains that it has absolute discretion to deny Mr. Ramirez's application, that the Court may not examine its reasons, and that this matter must be dismissed.[5] As the Government's actions are examined in closer detail, they cultivate and nourish suspicion. Despite the questionable actions of the Government, the Court is constrained by the law and has no basis to intervene. The Court attributes the inequitable outcome here to our shared failure to address a flawed immigration system, an agency's misguided attempt to justify prior actions, an overzealous enforcement philosophy, and an unfortunate confluence of bad luck.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Mr. Ramirez Grows Up in the United States

         Seeking a better life, Mr. Ramirez's parents brought him to this country when he was ten years old.[6] Now 27, Mr. Ramirez has never left the United States.[7] His family and his son are here. His family describes him as shy, quiet, timid, calm, and family oriented.[8] And now, the Government wants him deported.

         Growing up with his mother, brother, and sister in California, Mr. Ramirez found school challenging, struggled academically, and was bullied.[9] Gangs were prevalent in the area where Mr. Ramirez grew up and he found it impossible[10] not to know or interact with gang members.[11]But Mr. Ramirez was never interested in gang life and did not join a gang.[12] Instead, he wanted to help support his family, so he dropped out of school and started working.[13]

         Later, he recognized the opportunities school would have afforded him and began pursuing his education, but life took a different turn. Mr. Ramirez's American-born son-his “world”-arrived in late 2013.[14] Feeling the natural pressures of supporting his family and providing his son with a better life, Mr. Ramirez again left school and returned to providing for his family.[15] DACA presented Mr. Ramirez with the promise of legal employment and better opportunities to provide for his family.

         B. Mr. Ramirez is Granted DACA Status

         Unable to deport every non-citizen, the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) exercises broad discretion in setting its enforcement priorities. Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. 387, 396 (2012). Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is one such exercise of discretion whereby non-citizens satisfying certain guidelines may seek deferred action “for a period of two years, subject to renewal for a period of two years, and may be eligible for employment authorization.”[16] Being approved for DACA status is essentially a conditional promise from the Government that it will not seek removal for the applicable term. During the period of deferred action, the Government authorizes the non-citizen to be employed legally within the United States, allowing for continued contribution to our communities.

         Mr. Ramirez was nervous about seeking DACA status since he was a non-citizen and would be forced to make himself known to the Government.[17] Applying would be a financial burden and, to prove he qualified, he would be required to share personal information with the Government. Specifically, Mr. Ramirez had to submit evidence establishing that he:

• came to the United States under the age of sixteen;
• has continuously resided in the United States for a least five years preceding the date of this memorandum and is present in the United States on the date of this memorandum;
• is currently in school, has graduated from high school, has obtained a general education development certificate, or is an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States;
• has not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise poses a threat to national security or public safety; and
• is not above the age of thirty.[18]

         Mr. Ramirez was also required to submit to biometric testing and extensive background checks to establish whether his “presence in the United States threatens public safety or national security.”[19] Mr. Ramirez's misgivings did not manifest, and he felt a certain measure of relief after applying.[20] But he still had to wait.

         After waiting for several months, Mr. Ramirez found out that he had been approved for two years of DACA status.[21] He believed that DACA status would allow him to live and work within the country without fear of being detained or deported.[22]

         C. Mr. Ramirez's Life and Transgressions

         Mr. Ramirez carried on with a mostly normal life. He found work picking oranges and, while it was a physically demanding job, it allowed him to better support his family.[23] But, like many others, Mr. Ramirez's life was not spotless, and he had several interactions with law enforcement. Shortly after applying for DACA status, and most alarmingly, Mr. Ramirez was the subject of an investigation for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.[24] The mother of Mr. Ramirez's son was seventeen at the time she gave birth.[25] Because Mr. Ramirez was twenty, a mandatory report was filed with the police and the incident was investigated.[26] After learning that the mother and Mr. Ramirez had been in a committed and consensual relationship, planned to get married when they could, were both involved in raising the child, and had the support of both their parents, police closed the case and referred it to the local prosecutor.[27] No. charges were ever filed, and Mr. Ramirez was never detained or arrested.[28]

         Mr. Ramirez, after having been granted DACA status, was also stopped by law enforcement as he drove through Oregon.[29] A search of the vehicle revealed that Mr. Ramirez possessed less than an ounce of marijuana.[30] Mr. Ramirez received a non-criminal citation for possessing marijuana in violation of Oregon state law and for violating several traffic laws.[31]Mr. Ramirez pleaded no contest to the marijuana citation and it was converted into a fine.[32]Otherwise, Mr. Ramirez's record was limited to several[33] traffic citations over the years.[34]

         After two years, now 2016, Mr. Ramirez sought to renew his status and was again subjected to the DACA application process.[35] Review of his renewal application focused on: (1) whether he had initially qualified for DACA, (2) whether he had departed the United States without authorization, (3) whether he had continuously resided in the United States, and (4) whether he had been “convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor, or three or more misdemeanors . . . [or] otherwise pose[d] a threat to national security or public safety.”[36] The record is unclear and the parties dispute whether Mr. Ramirez was required to share any of his prior transgressions with USCIS at the time of his renewal. But his history would not have been disqualifying and the potential effect on his renewal remains speculative. In the end, the Government performed another background check, [37] raised no concerns, and again exercised its “ultimate discretion to determine [that] deferred action [was] appropriate in” Mr. Ramirez's case.[38] Mr. Ramirez was informed that “[u]nless terminated, this decision to defer removal action will remain in effect for 2 years, ” until May 4, 2018.[39]

         Authorized to continue working legally and seeking better job opportunities to provide for his son and assist his mother, Mr. Ramirez came to Washington in late 2016.[40] He joined his brother and father who were already in Washington and began looking for work. But Mr. Ramirez's life again took a sudden unfortunate turn.

         D. Mr. Ramirez is Detained by ICE Under Questionable Circumstances

         On February 10, 2017, at approximately 9:00 a.m., ICE agents arrested Mr. Ramirez's father outside of the apartment where Mr. Ramirez, his father, and his brother were living.[41] ICE agents entered the apartment[42] and found Mr. Ramirez asleep.[43] Mr. Ramirez was jolted from sleep and agents began to question him.[44] Mr. Ramirez answered honestly, providing agents with his name, birthdate, and place of birth-Mexico.[45] Without understanding why, Mr. Ramirez was placed in handcuffs.[46] Mr. Ramirez began to repeatedly inform ICE agents that he had a valid work permit, [47] but the agents refused to release him.[48] Mr. Ramirez's father also attempted to intervene, repeatedly reiterating that his son had a valid work permit and should not be detained.[49] Other than his official legal status, ICE agents had no proof, probable cause, or reasonable suspicion of any criminal activity.[50]

         After arresting Mr. Ramirez and transporting him to a processing facility, ICE agents confirmed that Mr. Ramirez had no known criminal history and had twice been granted DACA status.[51] Nevertheless, the agents chose to interrogate Mr. Ramirez and attributed additional meaning to his innocuous answers that he knew gang members in middle and high school and that they may have been Sureños.[52] ICE agents also speculated that Mr. Ramirez's innocuous tattoo of a nautical star and the words “La Paz-BCS, ” representing his birthplace, indicated gang affiliation.[53] Without any corroborating evidence ICE concluded that Mr. Ramirez had gang affiliations, detained him in the Northwest Detention Center, and initiated removal proceedings.[54]

         E. Mr. Ramirez Seeks His Release

         Mr. Ramirez sought habeas corpus relief from this Court to secure his release.[55] As the matter garnered national attention, the Government justified its actions by representing that Mr. Ramirez was a gang member and a risk to public safety.[56] Further, the Government represented that it had corroborating evidence, “including photos and social media content that illustrate his gang affiliation.”[57] Despite its concerns, this Court ultimately concluded that Mr. Ramirez had to seek his release “in the context of his removal proceedings” and directed the Government to schedule a bond hearing, as requested by Mr. Ramirez, within a week.[58]

         At the subsequent custody redetermination hearing, the Government did not present any evidence substantiating its continued assertions that Mr. Ramirez was affiliated with gangs.[59]After the immigration judge necessarily found that Mr. Ramirez was not a threat to public safety, Mr. Ramirez was released on a $15, 000 bond.[60] In total, the Government detained Mr. Ramirez for 47 days before he secured his release.[61]

         F. USCIS Attempts to Terminate DACA Status and ICE Removal Proceedings

         Although he was no longer detained, Mr. Ramirez was burdened with the Government's continued crusade against him. After ICE began removal proceedings in February 2017, USCIS notified Mr. Ramirez that it was treating his DACA status as automatically terminated.[62] Mr. Ramirez amended his complaint before this Court to challenge the Government's actions up to that point and USCIS's termination of his DACA status.[63] At the same time, and despite the legal action, ICE continued to pursue removal and, in January 2018, obtained an order of removal for Mr. Ramirez.[64]

         Across the country, the Government aggressively sought to terminate DACA status for similarly situated non-citizens. The Government's no-notice terminations of DACA status prompted legal challenges. Most relevant, the United States District Court for the Central District of California certified a class that included all DACA recipients “who, after January 19, 2017, have had or will have their DACA [status] revoked without notice or an opportunity to respond, even though they have not been convicted of a disqualifying criminal offense.” Inland Empire- Immigrant Youth Collective v. Nielsen, No. C17-2048-PSG-SHKx, 2018 WL 1061408, at *22 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 26, 2018). In the same order, the court enjoined the Government's “decisions after January 19, 2017 to terminate the DACA [status] of class members, without notice, a reasoned explanation, or an opportunity to respond prior to termination, ” and ordered the Government to “immediately [] restore those individuals' DACA [status], subject to their original date of expiration.”[65] Mr. Ramirez was a part of the certified class.[66]

         G. USCIS Again Attempts to Terminate Mr. Ramirez's DACA Status

         As required by court order, USCIS restored Mr. Ramirez's DACA status, providing him notice of that action on April 3, 2018.[67] The notice indicated that ten days had been added to the term of his DACA status and that it was scheduled to expire on May 15, 2018.[68] But if Mr. Ramirez found any relief, it was fleeting. USCIS concurrently gave Mr. Ramirez notice of its intent to terminate his DACA status.[69] USCIS indicated that in accordance with DACA Standard Operating Procedures[70] (“SOP”), it had determined that Mr. Ramirez did “not warrant a favorable exercise of prosecutorial discretion” under DACA.[71] As support, and despite evidence to the contrary, USCIS relied on the assertion of gang affiliation, “DHS' determination that you are an enforcement priority, and the fact that ICE has informed USCIS that it is actively pursuing your removal and you were recently ordered removed.”[72]

         Mr. Ramirez again found himself before this Court challenging the Government's attempt to terminate his DACA status on the basis that he was gang affiliated without any supporting evidence.[73] Because the Government had never supported its gang affiliation claims, this Court found that “[the Government's] continued assertion that [Mr. Ramirez] is a gang member or gang-affiliated is arbitrary and capricious” and that further reliance on the allegations would likely deny him due process.[74] Accordingly, the Court enjoined the Government “from asserting, adopting, or relying in any proceedings on any statement or record made as of this date purporting to allege or establish that Mr. Ramirez is a gang member, gang affiliated, or a threat to public safety.”[75] The Court's order had little practical effect on Mr. Ramirez's reinstated DACA status, however, as by its own terms it expired that day.[76]

         H. Mr. Ramirez Seeks Routine Renewal of His DACA Status

         1. Mr. Ramirez Faces Increased Scrutiny

         Having drawn national media scrutiny, Mr. Ramirez's case received additional scrutiny within the Government as well.[77] When Mr. Ramirez applied to renew his DACA status, the Government had already been anticipating the application.[78] USCIS attorneys learned of the application and sought to determine whether ICE had additional “non-gang” bases to consider Mr. Ramirez an enforcement priority.[79] ICE did continue to consider Mr. Ramirez an enforcement priority, having learned of his prior transgressions in the context of his January 2018 removal proceeding. ICE relayed the information it had learned, quoted as follows:

• Daniel Ramirez admitted having sex with an underage girl in California, in violation of CPC 261.5. Police report offers details. Admitted during removal proceedings that he knew age of consent in California is 18.
• He admitted during removal proceedings that he had acquired marijuana from a “friend” who had a medical marijuana authorization card. He wrote to an Oregon court that he keeps marijuana with him at all times.
• He admitted violating Oregon law by possessing marijuana in his car while driving from Washington state to California. Received citation.
• He has $4, 000 in unpaid driving fines, according to his own cancellation application[80]

         The newly identified transgressions were a revelation for USCIS and the Government sought to learn more. As the Government considered the information, it filtered from the attorneys to USCIS Service Center Operations Directorate (“SCOPS”)-the division of USCIS tasked with adjudicating Mr. Ramirez's application-and to the individual adjudicator for Mr. Ramirez's application.[81] Prior to one strategy session, the adjudicator confirmed for SCOPS HQ that the newly learned information was not considered in Mr. Ramirez's prior approvals.[82]

         2. USCIS Adjudicator Favors Renewal

         But the adjudicator called into question the importance of the transgressions on her consideration of the DACA application. For instance, the adjudicator noted that Mr. Ramirez was not actually charged for having sex with an underage girl because she was the mother of his child, it was consensual and within a romantic relationship, and the age difference was small.[83]The adjudicator noted that “we have approved DACA requests with similar situations” and it does not appear “that [Mr. Ramirez] is a sexual predator.”[84] As to his possession of marijuana, the adjudicator noted that it was only a citation and that “[p]ossession of marijuana citations are generally not disqualifying for DACA.”[85] The adjudicator noted, further, that Mr. Ramirez's background checks had never revealed derogatory information or indications of gang affiliation and included only his single ICE detention.[86]

         3. USCIS Seeks to Deny Mr. Ramirez's Renewal Application

         But the adjudicator's initial assessment was not credited, and she was directed to seek further information from ICE prior to making any decisions on the case.[87] Upon receiving additional information from ICE, the adjudicator passed the information on to SCOPS HQ.[88] Resigned to her loss of control and cognizant that “[a]s there is national interest in this case, a lot of people will likely need to weigh in on the final decision, ” the adjudicator inquired as to “what the next steps will be and any timelines.”[89] Two days later, having apparently received direction, the adjudicator submitted a request for guidance (“RAG”) to SCOPS HQ.[90] SCOPS HQ determined[91] that Mr. Ramirez was not a “public safety concern” but considered his criminal history as a “derogatory factor in the consideration of deferred action under the totality of the circumstances.”[92] SCOPS HQ recommended that the adjudicator issue a Notice of Intent to Deny (“NOID”) and included a draft NOID with its response.[93]

         The NOID issued to Mr. Ramirez indicated that he was not a candidate for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion because: (1) ICE actively sought his removal, (2) in 2013 he had a sexual relationship resulting in the birth of his child while the child's mother was 17 and Mr. Ramirez was 20, (3) in 2014, he had pleaded no contest[94] to possession of marijuana, and (4) he had outstanding unpaid traffic fines.[95]

         4. Mr. Ramirez Responds but His Application is Denied

         Mr. Ramirez submitted a response, arguing that denial of his application would violate the Administrative Procedure Act and this Court's preliminary injunction.[96] After considering the response, the adjudicator again appeared inclined to grant the renewal and advocated her case within the agency. The adjudicator referred to a guidance document indicating that even though adjudications were “case-by-case . . . discretion should be applied consistently” and “similar fact patterns should yield similar results.”[97] After noting this guidance, the investigator again reiterated her position on Mr. Ramirez's history.[98] As to the investigation into his relationship with the mother of his son, the adjudicator noted that “nothing in the record would lead me, the adjudicator, to believe [Mr. Ramirez] is a sexual predator.”[99] As to the marijuana possession charge, she indicated that it “would not have been considered to be a conviction for a misdemeanor . . . and I, as the adjudicating officer, would not have considered it a public safety concern.”[100] Lastly, the adjudicator explained that “[t]o my knowledge, traffic fines have never been evaluated as a discretionary factor which has led to the discretionary denial of a DACA requires.”[101]

         But the adjudicator was overruled by her superiors.[102] The Branch Chief of the Waivers and Temporary Services Branch (WATS)-apparently a part of SCOPS HQ-explained that

[w]hile the decision to deny DACA based on ICE's confirmation that an individual is an enforcement priority is not automatic much the same way that approving a DACA request for an individual that meets the threshold criteria is not automatic, WATS believes that denial of this DACA request is appropriate in the exercise of USCIS's discretion for the reasons previously noted in our response to the RAG and included in the NOID. The NOID response does not overcome or change our assessment of this case.[103]

         Flipping the consideration, WATS indicated that it was “unaware of any cases with similar fact patterns to this case that have been approved (i.e. ICE enforcement priority determination and the additional negative discretionary factors discussed in the NOID).”[104] WATS continued to recommend denial.[105]

         The adjudicator proposed to use a form denial letter with a simple and generic justification: “You have not established that you warrant a favorable exercise of prosecutorial discretion.”[106] But the adjudicator was again overruled and instructed to issue a denial that closely tracked the language of the NOID.[107] An initial draft was circulated, and the adjudicator received back the “most recent version of the notice cleared through” the Office of Chief Counsel.[108] After a final check with ICE to confirm that Mr. Ramirez was still considered an enforcement priority, the Government issued its denial of Mr. Ramirez's application on December 19, 2018.[109] The denial indicated that Mr. Ramirez had not contested any underlying facts relied upon in the NOID and concluded that his application had been denied under the “totality of the circumstances.”[110]

         5. Litigation Continues

         Following denial, Mr. Ramirez sought leave to amend this action to seek relief related to the denial of his DACA renewal request.[111] Both Mr. Ramirez's motion seeking a preliminary injunction and the Government's motion seeking dismissal are pending before the Court.[112]

         III. DISCUSSION

         The Court first considers the Government's challenge to this Court's subject matter jurisdiction and its ability to entertain Mr. Ramirez's complaints.

         A. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12 allows a party to move for dismissal based on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). When a court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, it lacks the power to proceed, and its only remaining function is to dismiss. Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 94 (1998). Once the moving party has asserted lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the court will presume that there is no jurisdiction and the burden is on the party asserting jurisdiction to prove otherwise. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). “A jurisdictional challenge under Rule 12(b)(1) may be made either on the face of the pleadings or by presenting extrinsic evidence.” Warren v. Fox Family Worldwide, Inc., 328 F.3d 1136, 1139 (9th Cir. 2003) (citing White v. Lee, 227 F.3d 1214, 1242 (9th Cir. 2000)).

         B. The Court Lacks Subject ...


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