By Dan Levine and Kristina Cooke
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - U.S. officials have initiated deportation proceedings against a Mexican immigrant with a work permit who was arrested near Seattle last week, alleging he has gang ties, according to a court filing from the Justice Department on Thursday.
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. The lawsuit said 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 filed court papers denying that he has any gang involvement or criminal record and saying he should not have been targeted for deportation.
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 (DACA) has been taken into immigration custody.
DACA, established by Obama in 2012, allows those brought to the country while young to attend school and work. The program protects from deportation some 750,000 people who were brought to the United States illegally as children and are sometimes called "dreamers," in reference to the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) legislation that failed to pass.
Immigration officers last week arrested more than 680 people in the country illegally, with the broad enforcement action alarmed immigrant rights groups.
At a press conference on Thursday, Trump promised that his administration would "deal with DACA with heart." He said the issue was a tough one because, while a majority of those benefiting from the program are "absolutely incredible kids," others are "gang members, and they're drug dealers, too."
The Justice Department's Thursday filing said ICE officers questioned Ramirez about a "gang tattoo" on his forearm.
But Ramirez's lawyers, in a separate court filing on Thursday, said ICE has launched a public campaign to smear Ramirez.
The tattoo on Ramirez's forearm had a nautical star and the name of his birthplace, the filing said, which had nothing to do with any gang. ICE agents asked "five to seven times" whether Ramirez was in a gang, and he denied it each time, the filing said.
Additionally, the filing said, immigration officers removed words from a written statement by Ramirez denying gang involvement to make it sound as if he was admitting gang affiliation.
The Justice Department asserted that a Seattle federal judge has no legal basis to consider Ramirez's lawsuit because ICE has initiated deportation proceedings to be adjudicated in a separate administrative court. Ramirez's attorneys say the issue before the Seattle court is an illegal arrest and detention, not an immigration matter.
Ramirez has asked the judge to order his release immediately. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday.
(Additional reporting by Bill Rigby in Seattle; Editing by David Gregorio and Lisa Shumaker)