By Tom James
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A Seattle federal judge on Wednesday wrestled with whether he has the power to release a Mexican immigrant with a work permit who was arrested by U.S. authorities last month.
Daniel Ramirez Medina was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers who went to his house to arrest his father. ICE alleged Ramirez had gang ties and should be deported. Ramirez's lawyers have denied their client has any gang involvement or criminal record, and called his arrest unconstitutional.
Ramirez argues that the challenge to his arrest should be heard in the federal courts, while U.S. Justice Department attorneys say the case should proceed in a separate immigration court. If Ramirez can win his freedom in Seattle federal court, it could point a new way forward for thousands of people across the country threatened by stepped-up immigration enforcement under President Donald Trump.
U.S. Magistrate Judge James Donohue said he hoped to issue a ruling by early next week.
Immigration courts, which operate separately from the broader federal judiciary, have a huge backlog and immigration lawyers say it is difficult to win deportation challenges there.
At a hearing on Wednesday, Donohue questioned lawyers for the Justice Department on whether they could set up a roadblock to stop anyone "who is driving while brown," start deportation proceedings against them, and then send them to immigration court.
"They have no remedy or recourse in the district court?" Donohue asked.
Justice Department attorney Jeffrey Robins said Ramirez's case is not such an extreme circumstance.
Ramirez's case could be the first under the Trump administration in which a person granted a work permit under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has been taken into immigration custody, his lawyers say. The program started by former President Barack Obama offers protection from deportation for some 750,000 immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. These people are sometimes called "dreamers," in reference to the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) legislation that failed to pass Congress.
Federal law says deportation cases must be heard in immigration court, but Ramirez's lawyers argue that they are merely challenging his arrest, not his deportation. Still, Donohue asked whether Ramirez's arguments are so intertwined with deportation that they should be heard in immigration court.
Ramirez's lawyer Mark Rosenbaum repeated that they are merely seeking a recognition that Ramirez's arrest was improper and an order releasing him.
(Reporting by Tom James; Writing by Dan Levine; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)