By Kristina Cooke and Dan Levine
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - U.S. immigration authorities on Wednesday said the arrest of a Mexican man who had permission to work in the country was consistent with a years-long policy to target threats to public safety.
Daniel Ramirez Medina, 23, was taken into custody last week at his father's home near Seattle by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, according to a lawsuit he filed challenging his detention. He was brought to the United States illegally as a child and given a work permit during the administration of former President Barack Obama.
Ramirez's lawyers have said this could be the first time under U.S. President Donald Trump that a person covered by a policy known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, has been taken into immigration custody.
Ramirez's lawsuit in Seattle federal court argues that the government violated his constitutional rights. He asked a judge to order his release immediately. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday.
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After Reuters reported Ramirez's lawsuit on Tuesday, ICE issued a statement saying officers took him into custody "based on his admitted gang affiliation and risk to public safety." ICE declined to elaborate further on how it established the man was a member of a gang.
Ramirez's lawsuit said he has no criminal record. One of his attorneys, Ethan Dettmer, said Ramirez "unequivocally denies" being in a gang and said ICE agents repeatedly pressured him while in custody to "falsely admit his affiliation."
In a statement on Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security said that since 2012, when Obama was president, about 1,500 DACA recipients have had their permits terminated due to a criminal conviction or gang affiliation.
"This case illustrates the work ICE fugitive operations teams perform every day across the country to remove public safety threats from our communities when they encounter them," the statement said.
Attorneys for Ramirez could not immediately be reached for comment.
Under 2014 guidance from the Obama administration, someone would be a deportation priority for gang activity only if they had been convicted of an offence in connection with the gang, although there was room for discretion on the part of immigration officials. Reuters could not determine whether gang members who had not committed crimes were deported during Obama's tenure.
DACA was established in 2012 by Obama to allow those brought to the country while young to attend school and work. The program protects from deportation 750,000 people who were brought to the United States illegally as children.
People in the program are sometimes called "dreamers," in reference to the proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors legislation, aimed at setting up a path to permanent residency for immigrants, which failed to pass.
Trump has promised a crackdown on the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, most of whom come from Mexico and other Latin American countries, but he has also hinted at lenience for those covered by DACA.
In an interview with ABC News last month, Trump said his administration was devising a policy for dealing with "dreamers," without indicating any concrete plans.
"They are here illegally. They shouldn't be very worried. I do have a big heart. We're going to take care of everybody. We're going to have a very strong border," Trump said at the time.
Although the reasons for Ramirez's arrest are in dispute, a broad move against DACA recipients would represent a significant change in immigration enforcement under Trump.
Ramirez's detention has prompted an outcry from immigrant advocacy groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and Democratic lawmakers. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said on Twitter that DACA recipients should not be an enforcement priority and ICE should "release Daniel immediately."
The DHS statement on Wednesday said agents apprehended Ramirez at a home during operations "targeting a prior-deported felon." The agency did not say whether that person was Ramirez's father or offer details about the nature of the felony.
(Reporting by Dan Levine; Editing by Bill Rigby)