Jilmar Ramos-Gomez was born and raised in Grand Rapids, joining the U.S. Marines after high school and becoming a decorated veteran who served in Afghanistan.
But despite his service — and despite being a U.S. citizen — Ramos-Gomez was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials for deportation after he was arrested on trespassing charges, said immigration attorneys. ICE and county officials had confused Ramos-Gomez, 27, with being an immigrant even though he had his U.S. passport and other ID on him at the time of his arrest.
Last month, after Ramos-Gomez was released on bond, ICE officials transported him from Kent County jail to an immigrant detention center in Calhoun County. He was set to be deported, until his mother contacted an attorney to rescue him from jail.
The detention has outraged his family and civil rights attorneys who say it's an example of how immigration and county officials have become overzealous in immigration enforcement. They also say it's an example of racial profiling of Latinos by immigration officials, and police.
Advocates with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Michigan Immigrant Rights Center sent a letter Wednesday to Kent County officials asking for documents and information about what exactly happened to the veteran Marine.
"I don't feel good about what they did to my son," Maria Gomez-Velaquez, his mother, told the Free Press during a phone interview. "They were not listening to my son even though he had ID on him. It's not right. My son is from here, he's born here, a United States citizen. He served in the Marines, the military, but they don't care what my son did for his country."
Officials with ICE, Kent County Sheriff, and Calhoun County Sheriff could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
Kent County Undersheriff Chuck DeWitt told the Associated Press that ICE had contacted them to hold Ramos-Gomez. "Once he was released from our custody, he was under the domain of ICE. Where they take him is their process," DeWitt said. "Our procedures were followed."
Former Marine has PTSD, episodes
Ramos-Gomez served in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014 as a tank crewman and lance corporal. He was awarded a a global war on terrorism service medal, national defense service medal, an Afghanistan campaign medal, and a combat action ribbon, among other awards, said the ACLU.
"But when he returned home, he was a shell of his former self, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after what he had seen," according to an ACLU letter to Kent County officials. "His family reports that he is focused on returning for his Marine brothers in Afghanistan."
Ramos-Gomez developed some symptoms of PTSD after his service in Afghanistan and has "episodes where he disappears and when he is found again, he often has no recollection of where he has been," the letter stated.
On Nov. 21, he was arrested after "apparently damaging a fire alarm at Spectrum Health (in Grand Rapids) and trespassing on the heliport," said the letter by his supporters. "The police report shows that Mr. Ramos-Gomez had his passport on him when he was arrested."
He pleaded guilty to trespassing and on Dec. 14, a judge ordered him to be released on a personal bond. His mother, an immigrant from Guatemala, then went to pick him up from the jail.
When she arrived, she was told that ICE had put him on a bus to the immigrant detention center in Calhoun County in Battle Creek, more than an hour away.
The mother told them they made a mistake, that her son was a U.S. citizen who had lived in the U.S. his entire life. But moments later, she saw the immigration bus in the parking lot, leaving for Battle Creek with her son inside.
"I felt like I was ready to have a heart attack," said Gomez-Velaquez. "I saw my son going in an immigration van and I don't believe it. I thought it's a joke."
She then contacted an attorney, but since it was a Friday, her son was held there over the weekend.
On Monday, the attorney showed up and convinced them to release Ramos-Gomez after saying he had documents that clearly showed he was a U.S. citizen.
Why detain a U.S. citizen?
Ramos-Gomez's mother wants answers. "What did they do to my son?" she said.
Ramos-Gomez is currently staying at a hospital recuperating from PTSD issues, which his attorneys worry may have been made worse by his experience being detained by immigration officials.
"It is appalling that ICE would be so sloppy and callous and careless that they would target a U.S. citizen, a combat veteran who served his country and try to deport him from the very country he is serving," said Miriam Aukerman, a senior attorney at the ACLU of Michigan. "It is absolutely outrageous."
Hillary Scholten, an attorney with Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, said this case illustrates problems with what is known as the immigration detainers, in which ICE requests that local jails hold inmates beyond their release date if they are immigrants that officials want to detain and deport.
Immigrant advocates say that system is unconstitutional and leads to abuses. In Wayne County, the sheriff ended the detainer system in 2017 after concerns were raised by civil rights activists.
Aukerman said local "jails should not volunteer resources to work with a deportation machinery that is sloppy, overzealous and makes mistakes with frightening frequency."
In the case of Ramos-Gomez, "he was supposed to be released, but Kent County held him for ICE," said Scholten.
Scholten said that county officials in Kent say that they are merely doing what ICE asked of them, but she said it's unclear how ICE arrived at the conclusion that Ramos-Gomez was an immigrant who should be detained. Who gave the information to ICE?, she asked. Or, she said, did ICE confuse him with another person?
According to a report last year in the Los Angeles Times, the problem of ICE detaining U.S. citizens is widespread, with ICE "agents repeatedly targeting U.S. citizens for deportation by mistake, making wrongful arrests based on incomplete government records, bad data and lax investigations."
This case also highlights the issue of Latinos who are U.S. citizens being profiled. The Free Press has reported how citizens who are Latinos are sometimes randomly stopped and interrogated by federal agents.
"It's fair to say it would be extremely unlikely that a Caucasian detainee would end up in immigration proceedings" like Gomez-Ramos, who is Latino, did, said Aukerman.
While the mother of Gomez-Ramos is an immigrant from Guatemala, it's unclear what country ICE wanted to deport Ramos-Gomez to.
The ACLU's letter asks Kent County to provide an explanation of what happened to Gomez-Ramos at their next County Commission meeting on Jan. 24. "Ramos-Gomez, his family, and the public all deserve to know how and why the Sheriff’s Department delivered Mr. Ramos-Gomez to ICE," the letter reads.
"Kent County is definitely very much at fault," said Scholten. "They can't just blindly follow what ICE asks them to do."
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: ICE tried to deport a U.S.-born Marine, and his mom wants to know why
ICE tried to deport a U.S.-born Marine, and his mom wants to know why.