On the November day Jilmar Ramos-Gomez was arrested in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a local police captain sent an email to an US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer with a summary of the allegations, Ramos-Gomez’s name, and a request: “Could you please check his status?”
Two days later, on Nov. 23, 2018, an ICE deportation officer emailed back, claiming that they had interviewed Ramos-Gomez and determined he was in the country illegally and that once he was released from the local jail, he’d be taken into their custody.
“Thank you for the lead,” the ICE officer wrote to the police captain who shared the tip.
But there was a problem: Ramos-Gomez was a US citizen. And he’d served in Afghanistan as a Marine. These are facts that even the local prosecutor handling the veteran’s case pointed out to police when he learned ICE had taken custody of him.
“I am confused,” the prosecutor wrote in an email. “Didn’t his property have a US Passport in it? And he was a veteran?!”
A Grand Rapids police officer responded: “Who knows, not sure it was a US passport…. I am not sure about the vet thing.”
The emails come from a cache of communications obtained through a public records request by the ACLU of Michigan that reveal how Ramos-Gomez — who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder — ended up in ICE detention even though he was born in the US. The case has sparked outcry from advocates across the country and even caused the local sheriff to change policies governing how they interact with ICE.
The emails, advocates said, show that racial bias was likely the determining factor in Ramos-Gomez ending up in ICE detention. Local officials have told ACLU attorneys that the police captain who contacted ICE had been watching a news report, which featured Ramos-Gomez’s mugshot, when he learned of the case and looked into it.
“I don’t think there is any other way to read it,” Miriam Aukerman, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, told BuzzFeed News. “The idea that this is anything other than checking the status of someone based on his visual appearance and his Latino name, it doesn’t pass the laugh test.”
“There is no other way to understand what happened other than racial profiling.”
The incident began when Ramos-Gomez was arrested by the Grand Rapids Police on Nov. 21 on suspicion of attempting to start a fire in a stairwell at a hospital — it’s unclear why he was there — and trying to reach the facility’s helipad, according to his attorneys and local law enforcement. The ACLU has said that Ramos-Gomez had a US passport, Real ID, and other items at the time of his arrest.
The 27-year-old veteran was set to be released on his own recognizance Dec. 14 after pleading guilty to a trespassing charge, but the Kent County Sheriff’s Office — which runs the jail he was held in — detained him for more than an hour at ICE’s request so he could be transferred to its custody.
He remained in ICE custody until Dec. 17, when his attorney called and provided documentation that he was a US citizen.
For its part, the Grand Rapids Police Department has said that it investigated the incident and found that the police captain who reached out to ICE did so because the allegations against Ramos-Gomez’s alleged actions constituted a possible terrorist act. The captain is the department’s liaison to the immigration agency.
“Contacting ICE is not a routine part of our investigative process,” Interim Police Chief David Kiddle said in a statement Friday on Facebook. “Rather, we did this in light of the potential risk to the public’s safety, specifically through a possible act of terrorism.”
ACLU attorneys, however, point out that a Grand Rapids Police official — not the captain — investigating the incident sent a text to an official at the FBI the day of Ramos-Gomez’s arrest saying that the FBI did not need to be involved.
“Vet, PTSD, But not a FBI issue,” the text read.
The emails obtained by the ACLU of Michigan also show that the police captain described Ramos-Gomez as “loco” in the subject line of an email he sent to ICE with the police report. Kiddle has said that the language was “unprofessional” and that the matter has been discussed with the captain.
In the meantime, the police department is evaluating its policies surrounding how it contacts federal authorities.
ICE has said that Ramos-Gomez told them he was undocumented during an interview in jail and that it took action by detaining him afterward. The ACLU of Michigan said this claim raises questions about how thoroughly ICE investigated the situation.
Since the ACLU publicized the case, the Kent County Sheriff’s Office has announced that it will no longer detain individuals for ICE without a warrant from a judge.
“It is the predictable consequence of entanglement between ICE and local law enforcement,” Aukerman said of the case. “What ICE encourages (tips from local law enforcement) is in fact targeting of Latinos and other people perceived to be foreign.”