When Maria Gomez showed up late one December afternoon at a Grand Rapids, Michigan, jail to pick up her son, an American-born Marine who served in Afghanistan, the deputies told her something that, frankly, made no sense.
“Your son was just sent with immigration,” she recalls the deputies telling her. “He is in their hands.”
It must be a mistake, she told them. “My son doesn’t have anything to do with immigration. He is a US citizen,” she said. “They said ‘we don’t know anything about that. He’s in their hands now.’ It almost gave me a heart attack.”
When she returned to the jail’s parking lot, she saw him enter a white van and be driven away.
Her son, Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, had served in Afghanistan as a lance corporal from 2011 to 2014 and returned to the United States suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He’s had episodes where he’ll disappear for days, and no one in his family will know where he’s gone.
It happened again Nov. 21, when Ramos-Gomez was arrested on suspicion of attempting to start a fire in a stairwell at a Grand Rapids hospital and trying to reach the facility’s helipad, according to his attorneys and local law enforcement. Ramos-Gomez, 27, pleaded guilty to a trespassing charge and was ordered released on Dec. 14 on his own recognizance to await sentencing, his attorneys said.
Instead, the Kent County Sheriff’s Office held him for more than an hour so he could be picked up by another county that transports and detains individuals for ICE.
Chuck DeWitt, undersheriff for the Kent County Sheriff’s Office, said that his officers had followed procedures and that everything about the case appeared routine. He regrets what happened to Ramos-Gomez but says that it was ICE, not the sheriff’s department, that made the ultimate decision to identify him as a target.
“It sounds very harsh but there isn’t anything we could’ve done differently in this situation that could have prevented that,” he said. “It is regretful but under these circumstances, I don’t know where we would have prevented that.”
ICE put the blame squarely on Ramos-Gomez, saying that when ICE officers interviewed him in jail he claimed he was “a foreign national illegally present in the US.” Because of that, ICE asked the sheriff’s department to hold him after he was released from local custody, and the sheriff’s department complied.
The ACLU of Michigan, which has taken up Ramos-Gomez’s case and has called for an investigation into the detention, said ICE’s statement opened up many questions.
“This shows how flimsy the evidence is that ICE relies on to deport people from this country,” said Miriam Aukerman, a senior attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, who said the organization was investigating whether Ramos-Gomez had in fact told ICE he wasn’t a US citizen.
Ramos-Gomez had a US passport and identification that noted his veteran status, Aukerman said.
“It is appalling that a comment by a mentally ill individual is enough to get you deported. What kind of investigation is that?”
The ACLU attorney also wondered why ICE had interviewed him in jail.
“If his name is John Smith, ICE isn’t interviewing him,” she said.
Because Ramos-Gomez had been transferred to ICE on a Friday, his family was unable to secure his release until the following Monday, when his lawyer called ICE officials.
“I don’t have words to say this because I feel like they don’t care,” Gomez told BuzzFeed News. “They don’t care that my son served this country.”
Aukerman said the incident reflected a larger problem with immigration enforcement.
“This is what immigration enforcement has come to in this country. It is so indiscriminate that we take people who served our country and try to deport them,” Aukerman said. “This is a tragedy. He risked his life and mental health for our country, came back and did not get the services he needs, and now ICE is trying to deport him. It is outrageous and appalling.”
“His immigration attorney said to ICE: Here is his military record, birth certificate, and ICE was like: ‘Oops, we got a US citizen,’” she added. ICE officials said that once they received the information they authorized his release, and no further action will be taken.
The case highlights what advocates believe is the problem with cooperation between some sheriff’s departments and ICE. When a person is arrested, fingerprints are compared with prints in federal databases that alert immigration authorities if the person is wanted. It’s at this point that ICE officials will often request a “detainer” to hold the individual until their officers can show up and take them into custody.
While in some areas, “sanctuary” policies limit cooperation between local authorities and ICE, that’s not the case in Kent County. The sheriff’s department has an agreement with ICE to hold individuals for up to three days and to be reimbursed for the extra detention.
The Michigan jail also allows ICE access within the facility to interview inmates, like Ramos-Gomez, whenever they’d like. In sanctuary areas, like California, inmates must sign forms consenting to an interview with ICE officials and are told that an attorney can be present with them.
DeWitt said that his office has asked ICE to review its policies so that a similar situation doesn’t happen.
DeWitt said he still supports cooperation between federal and local law enforcement, saying such cooperation is necessary to protect residents. But advocates see it differently, saying such cooperation actually chills trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities.
For her part, Ramos-Gomez’s mother, who came to the country from Guatemala, said that she will not trust law enforcement any longer.
The case is indicative of the problems that can come up when such interactions are rampant, Aukerman said.
“It’s terrible but it is the predictable consequence of this blind willingness to hand people over to ICE without looking,” she said, noting that ICE utilizes “administrative” warrants and not warrants signed by judges to request and hold individuals. “If ICE says ‘please, hand him over’ that is not enough. That is not what we should be doing.”
“There’s sometimes complex questions about citizenship, but in this case it is 100% obvious. He was born in a US hospital,” Aukerman said. “It reflects an incredibly sloppy approach by ICE.”
The ACLU sent a letter Wednesday to the Kent County Sheriff’s Office and the county Board of Commission demanding an investigation. DeWitt said that a US passport was not listed as one of Ramos-Gomez’s possessions but that often items are not marked by deputies.
The county’s agreement with ICE is up in September, and Ramos-Gomez’s case will be a factor in the decision-making on whether to continue with it or not, DeWitt said.
Meanwhile, Ramos-Gomez’s family is just happy he’s home and not in ICE custody or deported to Guatemala, where his family had initially come from. His mother said she couldn’t sleep the weekend he was in ICE custody.
But when he was released Dec. 17, she waited for him in the detention center parking lot. When he walked out of custody, they immediately hugged.
“I can’t believe they did this to you, son,” she told him. “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” he told her. “They didn’t believe me.”