Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez awoke one morning in March to find two men wearing jackets emblazoned with the word “police” standing over his bed. They tugged at his blanket and pointed a flashlight onto his face. Catalan-Ramirez, who had been partially paralyzed in a drive-by shooting two months earlier, hobbled out of bed and into the living room of his house. There, he found another four officers standing with his wife, Celene Adame.
The officers had first shown up outside the couple’s house in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood earlier that morning, as Adame was taking their children to school. She turned the officers away, but found them still outside when she returned. Again, she asked them to leave. Adame could hear her 3-year-old son crying as she went in to the apartment and found more officers inside. One of them asked Adame where the guns and drugs were. “What guns or drugs?” she replied.
After Catalan-Ramirez, a 32-year-old Guatemalan native who lacks proper immigration documents, came into the living room, the men asked the couple for identification. Adame, assuming they were police officers, gave them her husband’s birth certificate and a copy of his passport. Adame repeatedly asked the officers if they had a warrant, who they were, and what they were looking for. They gave no answers. (This account of the morning is based on filings Catalan-Ramirez made in a suit he later brought against several local and federal officials and agencies.)
Three officers — of the six in total inside the house — moved to surround Catalan-Ramirez. He told them in English that he was sick, still recovering from the drive-by shooting. He had fractured his skull and right shoulder, leaving him with a traumatic brain injury and partial paralysis on his left side. According to his testimony in court documents, he asked the officers to handcuff him in the front if they intended to arrest him, but two officers nonetheless wrenched his arms behind his back. Because of Catalan-Ramirez’s partial paralysis, his left arm was difficult to maneuver, so the officers slammed him to the floor. Three of them pinned him; one kneeled on his back.
“You are breaking my arm!” Catalan-Ramirez shouted in Spanish. The officers responded by slamming his head on the floor. At some point, Adame grabbed her phone and began to record the encounter, ignoring the officers’ requests that she stop. Eventually, the officers took Catalan-Ramirez out to their car and drove him to a hospital, where a doctor confirmed that his other shoulder was now also fractured.
Catalan-Ramirez’s next stop was a field office for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — he’d mistaken ICE agents for police. At no point did the agents ask Catalan-Ramirez about his immigration status nor did he offer them any information. ICE asked if Catalan-Ramirez was affiliated with a gang, and he told them “no.” He was eventually transferred to immigration detention, where he began parallel legal battles to stop his deportation and to get answers about why he had been the target of the violent raid.
Last week, after 10 months in ICE custody, Catalan-Ramirez was released to his family, his deportation put off for the time being. His odyssey, however, shows how local law enforcement initiatives can become intertwined with federal immigration agencies to ensnare people — even as cities like Chicago declare themselves sanctuaries for the undocumented.
Catalan-Ramirez, the father of two U.S.-born children, is a longtime Chicago resident who, until his arrest, fixed trailers at a body shop. The city is a hotbed of gang activity, but he says he has never been affiliated with a criminal gang. Chicago police officers have a different opinion, however, having added Catalan-Ramirez to the police department’s gang database. It is that listing that led to Catalan-Ramirez’s violent arrest in a March 27 ICE anti-gang operation. In fact, Catalan-Ramirez alleges, an ICE agent said the Chicago Police Department had given federal immigration authorities a tip that he was affiliated with a Chicago street gang.
Catalan-Ramirez sued ICE, claiming his warrantless arrest from his home was unconstitutional. He also sued the city of Chicago and the city’s police department, accusing them of violating his due process rights by adding him to the gang database without notifying him or giving him a chance to challenge his inclusion on the list. After reaching a settlement with Chicago in December – in which the police department admitted that it couldn’t verify that he is a gang member — he dropped the lawsuit against the city and its police department. In January, ICE agreed to release Catalan-Ramirez from detention under an order of supervision, and Catalan-Ramirez withdrew his suit against the agency as well.
In a statement to The Intercept, the Chicago police denied tipping off ICE about Catalan-Ramirez. ICE declined to comment on the allegation.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has positioned himself as a staunch protector of immigrants’ rights, and the Chicago Police Department maintains that it does not cooperate with federal immigration authorities and “does not share any information or communicate with ICE regarding our database.” Catalan-Ramirez’s case, however, makes clear that ICE is getting information collected by police somehow and using it in enforcement operations. Is Chicago, then, truly a sanctuary for unauthorized immigrants?
There is no set definition for a sanctuary city, and policies vary widely across the country. Among so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, a carve-out for people with a warrant or violent criminal conviction is common. Only a handful of local governments, however, have policies with exceptions for individuals thought to be affiliated with a gang. A DHS list of nearly 150 jurisdictions that have restricted cooperation with ICE lists only four jurisdictions that explicitly preclude identified gang members from protection: Connecticut; Middlesex County, New Jersey; Milwaukee; and Chicago. (DHS stopped publishing its name-and-shame list of jurisdictions that decline detainer requests in April, after several law enforcement agencies complained they were wrongly included.)
The Windy City has provided some level of sanctuary to immigrants since 1985, when Mayor Harold Washington, by executive order, gave all Chicago residents “regardless of nationality or citizenship” equal access to municipal benefits and directed city officials not to ask about or assist in the investigation of an individual’s citizenship status, except as required by federal law. In 2006, the Chicago City Council codified the policies into a “Welcoming City Ordinance,” noting that requiring or promoting local enforcement of immigration laws would harm public safety if victims or witnesses feared deportation if they spoke to police. Emanuel spearheaded an expansion of the ordinance in 2012, making it city policy not to detain individuals suspected of immigration-related offenses at the behest of federal authorities.
Emanuel’s move came with a catch. The expanded Welcoming City Ordinance has four exceptions for people thought by the city to pose a threat to public safety: those with an outstanding criminal warrant, a felony conviction, pending felony charges, or identification as a known gang member.
As it stands, these exceptions come into play only when an individual is arrested or otherwise detained by Chicago police. In Catalan-Ramirez’s case, there was no interaction with local law enforcement that triggered his arrest by immigration agents. ICE showed up at his home unannounced. And, according to his lawyers, it was because police had told immigration authorities that he belonged to a criminal gang.
The way police transmit gang information to ICE “is kind of a black box. It’s hard to know, and, of course, they’re not going to tell you,” said Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
“This loophole is a problem, insofar as it does affect individuals who may be in the gang database by mistake or may have had previous gang affiliation,” he said. It also ensnares people who “may not have done anything to engage in any kind of criminal activity, even if they are identified as having a gang relationship.”
The closest thing to a public record of who is in the gang database is the CPD’s Strategic Subject List, which uses an algorithm to predict who will be involved in gun violence. The department released a redacted version of the list, which includes a column on gang affiliation, to the Chicago Sun-Times in May in response to a lawsuit. The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Policing in Chicago Research Group analyzed the list and found that it includes nearly 65,000 Chicago residents as gang-affiliated; 74.5 percent of them are black, and 21.4 percent are Latino. Notably, the University of Illinois researchers found, 67.5 percent of the people identified as “gang-affiliated” on the list have never been arrested for violent offenses or unlawful use of a weapon.
Chicago’s database is of a piece with the decadeslong trend of urban police departments around the country operating specialized anti-gang units. Forty percent of local law enforcement offices surveyed by the National Gang Center in 2011 had such a unit, and more than three-quarters of those offices maintained intelligence on local gang activities. Eighty-four percent of local law enforcement agencies that gathered intelligence on gang affiliation in 2011 stored that data in an electronic system.
Gang databases essentially criminalize non-criminal activity, said Lena Graber, an attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center who focuses on immigration enforcement by local police. “What gang identification does is that it says we don’t have to have evidence that you’ve committed a crime or broken the law — we’re going to stop short of the Fourth Amendment and charging you with a crime and add you to this database that has criminal justice consequences without any due process,” she told The Intercept.
The problems are compounded when there are immigration consequences for gang identification, Graber added, particularly under the Trump administration. “We currently have a vociferously anti-immigrant government and a federal agency that is constantly demonizing immigrants and using fear around gangs to scapegoat immigrants and make them sound like an enemy,” Graber said.
Another attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Angie Junck, said the focus on gangs reinforced racial and ethnic biases in government responses to immigration issues. “Over-inclusiveness” — putting too many people into gang databases — “is a direct gateway of why immigration enforcement is racial profiling and disproportionately affects communities of color that are more likely to have gang issues,” she said.
The process by which Chicago’s specialized gang unit collects information and adds it to the database is opaque. The criteria for gang membership is subjective. “Gangs can be identified by what they wear, graffiti they display, and hand signals that they gesture,” according to the police department’s website. Rank-and-file police officers are empowered to make calls on who to include.
A scathing Department of Justice investigation into the Chicago Police Department — the results of which were released last January — found that many black and Latino residents of high-crime neighborhoods find that they are suspected of criminal activity or gang membership based solely on appearance. “As one Latino resident stated, ‘There is guilt by association,’” according to the investigation. “Latinos stated that there is a tendency for officers to ‘lump everyone together.’”
Chicago police added Catalan-Ramirez to their gang database twice, according to court documents. The first time, in June 2015, came after a run-in with two cops in his neighborhood. The officers approached Catalan-Ramirez while he was outside his neighbor’s home in Back of the Yards. “He was loitering with another individual in a known Latin Saint street gang/narcotic area,” the officers said, according to Chicago police records. Catalan-Ramirez contends that he was merely spending time outside with his friends and their children. Unbeknownst to Catalan-Ramirez, the officers labeled him a Latin Saints gang member and added his name to the gang database.
Then, in November 2016, two other police officers pulled Catalan-Ramirez over when he was driving a few blocks from his home, allegedly for failing to stop at a stop sign. They arrested him for that offense and for driving on a suspended license, and added him to the gang database as a member of the Satan Disciples — even though the Latin Saints and Satan Disciples are rival gangs.
The four Chicago cops “all wrongly assumed Mr. Catalan-Ramirez was a gang member because he was a young Latino who lived in a neighborhood that was considered to be gang territory,” Catalan-Ramirez’s lawyers argued in their initial legal complaint against the city.
According to the lawsuit, Catalan-Ramirez has never been a Chicago street gang member, and the police did not notify him about his inclusion in the gang database or give him an opportunity to contest it. The lack of transparency surrounding the database was the basis of Catalan-Ramirez’s claim that his due process rights were violated. “If someone is saying false allegations against you, you have a right to challenge those allegations, because if those false allegations are used against you and you’re deprived of your liberty, you have a right to challenge that false allegation,” Vanessa del Valle, Catalan-Ramirez’s lawyer at Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center, told The Intercept.
It’s not clear, though, that Catalan-Ramirez’s due process suit would have been successful if it had proceeded. There are two types of precedent for challenging government databases, and the facts of Catalan-Ramirez’s case don’t quite fit either of them, said Aziz Huq, a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago. In one set of cases, individuals challenge their inclusion on a government list because it harms their reputation, as in a 1976 case in which police distributed “active shoplifter” fliers pointing to a man against whom shoplifting charges were later dropped. The man sued the police, but the Supreme Court eventually ruled that his constitutional right to privacy had not been violated. In other words, Huq said, the court declared that “the due process clause does not protect your reputation.”
In the other type of cases, a government-run list is used for some sort of coercive government action, like the federal government’s no-fly list restricting access to air travel. Challenges to these lists have been moving through federal courts but have not yet reached the Supreme Court. Huq said that the no-fly list and Chicago police’s gang database are not exactly comparable: With the Chicago gang database, the body creating the list — the police department — is separate from the entity using it, ICE. And in watch-list cases, the government asserts that it has the right to deny people access to travel without any reason at all. In the gang database context, Huq said, the government does claim a legal basis for listing someone, even if it’s not always a persuasive one.
Catalan-Ramirez’s lawyers at the MacArthur Justice Center have filed a separate lawsuit challenging the gang database on behalf of Luis Pedrote-Salinas, whose parents brought him to the United States as a child and who is now in removal proceedings. The city has moved to dismiss that lawsuit, arguing in part that even if police did inaccurately label Pedrote-Salinas as a gang member, “due process provides no guarantee against police errors.” The city did not specifically address the allegation that the police department shares information from its gang database with ICE, but it did emphasize its “strong interest in maintaining information about gang affiliations.” That lawsuit is ongoing and is anti-gang database activists’ best chance at lifting the veil on the process of collecting and disseminating gang information.
The outcome of the case may depend on whether the court finds that the sharing of information between CPD and ICE is unlawful. “I find it hard to believe that a city like Chicago doesn’t have an interest in acquiring that information. That seems unlikely,” Huq said. “Then the question is, does that person have an interest in challenging it? Well, it depends on how the information is being used.”
In 2015, several immigrants’ rights groups in Chicago coalesced to form the Chicago Immigration Policy Working Group, which advocates for increased protections for immigrants. Their lobbying led to a 2016 amendment to the city’s sanctuary law that prohibits all city employees, including police officers, from asking about an individual’s immigration status or threatening deportation. Last year, the focus of their work turned to eliminating the exceptions to the Welcoming City Ordinance, which they think is critical to positive community-police relations.
“The perception that Chicago is a welcoming city, that people should feel free to call police — that actually isn’t true,” said Van Huynh, a staff attorney at the West Suburban Action Project, which is part of the working group. “We know that it’s difficult for community folks to see the difference between ICE agents and police officers. Even though the city says they’re not cooperating with ICE, that’s essentially not true because police officers have the discretion to hand over individuals.”
For a while, it seemed the city was being responsive to the working group’s concerns. The mayor’s office was cooperating with the group and considering an amendment to the sanctuary law that would eliminate the carve-outs in the Welcoming City Ordinance, according to advocates working on the issue. But in August, when the city sued the Justice Department over a plan to withhold federal public safety grants to jurisdictions with so-called sanctuary policies, the cooperation — and the prospect of an amendment to the ordinance — came to an end.
Emails obtained by The Intercept show that Tania Unzueta, policy and legal director at Mijente, wrote to Seemi Choudry, director of the Mayor’s Office of New Americans and asked for a meeting to discuss the city’s lawsuit against the Trump administration. Unzueta included a handful of queries. “At the top of the list is why you would tell us that the city does not want to call more attention from the Trump administration by changing the ordinance, and then go ahead and sue the Department of Justice?” Unzueta wrote. “If things have changed, can we move on getting rid of the carve outs now, and have an ordinance that we are proud to defend?”
Choudry rebuffed the questions. “As for scheduling a meeting to discuss the Welcoming City Ordinance, we are not a position to discuss amendments to the ordinance as we are now in litigation with the federal government,” Choudry wrote back. “I am happy to discuss this further with you over the phone.”
In a subsequent phone conversation, according to Unzueta, Choudry changed her tone and said that her inability to discuss the ordinance was not necessarily linked to the lawsuit, but that there was no point in continuing to talk if neither side was willing to budge.
Asked about Unzueta’s account, Emanuel’s office declined to comment on the emails but issued a statement in support of its lawsuit. “Our welcoming city protections are strong enough that they’re being targeted by the Trump administration, and we’re in court right now over them,” the statement said. “But even with the Trump Administration targeting Chicago under its unlawful attack, we will not be bullied into giving up our values.”
Chicago’s lawsuit against the administration is rooted in Trump’s executive order commanding federal agencies to withhold funds from sanctuary cities — including funding under a federal grant program that has supported the police for years. A U.S. District Court judge in September granted a preliminary injunction that bars the Justice Department from requiring sanctuary cities to cooperate with immigration agents in exchange for grant money, and the lawsuit is ongoing.
While immigrants’ rights advocates say they support efforts to push back against the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies, they don’t think Emanuel’s boisterous defiance of the federal government aligns with the city’s policies. “The mayor has increased his national public image to say he stands with immigrants, but the reality for immigrants hasn’t changed,” Huynh said. “From a national perspective, it’s great that they’re filing this lawsuit. From a local perspective, there’s not much being done.”
In August, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the Illinois Trust Act, under which law enforcement officers across the state cannot ask individuals about their immigration status or hold them without a warrant. Rauner, a Republican, held the signing ceremony at a Mexican restaurant in Little Village, a predominately Latino neighborhood in Chicago. He stood in front of a wall of colorful murals and told a room full of law enforcement, immigration advocates, and journalists that the decision to sign the law was a difficult one. “There are many people who don’t want me to sign this bill,” he said, “but I am very pro-immigration. I’ve been pro-immigration my whole life. I have been very pro-comprehensive immigration reform for my whole life.” The police officers he conferred with told him that the law would “help us keep our communities safer,” the governor added.
The statewide law has no exceptions, making it more protective than Chicago’s sanctuary law. Still, lawmakers on one side and advocates and legal experts on the other disagree about whether it has any impact on the city in which it was signed.
Under the Illinois Constitution, any municipality with a population of at least 25,000 is a “home rule” unit of government, which means it has the power to make its own laws. In 2013, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that ordinances enacted by municipalities — like Chicago’s Welcoming City one — trump subsequent state statutes, unless the Illinois legislature expressly exercises exclusive control. State lawmakers did not write an exception in the Trust Act, spurring some to believe that it does not supersede Chicago’s law. For those advocating to change Chicago’s policy, that makes all the difference. “It’s a little ironic that the state under a Republican governor has a much more progressive policy than this Democratic mayor in a metropolitan area,” Huynh said.
The Trust Act’s chief sponsor was Sen. John Cullerton, a Democrat who represents the state Senate’s 6th District. When asked whether the General Assembly considered including an exception in the law to overpower ordinances like Chicago’s, John Patterson, a spokesperson from Cullerton’s office, told The Intercept that the Trust Act applies statewide: It is a base policy that municipalities can go beyond in terms of offering protection to immigrants, he said. Chicago’s law, of course, does exactly the opposite.
Cullerton’s office does think the Trust Act should be imposed on Chicago. In a written statement after the initial interview, Patterson said that the law did not require an exception because “enforcement of federal immigration law is not a home rule power, as those powers relate only to matters of primarily local concern. The 2013 Illinois court ruling where municipalities’ ordinances trump subsequent state laws, then, would not apply. “Local law enforcement’s authority to enforce immigration law even without the Trust Act is extremely limited,” Patterson continued. “The Trust Act essentially codifies existing Fourth Amendment protections against searches and arrests without warrants or probable cause.”
Patterson’s narrow construction of home rule, though, could mean that Chicago never had the power to pass its sanctuary law in the first place, and that the city’s power to act on any issue that involves state or federal law is limited or nonexistent.
Ann Lousin, an expert in Illinois constitutional law and professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, said she expects that Chicago’s ordinance will someday be legally challenged on home rule grounds. The outcome “is very hard to predict,” she said, because the issue involves three layers of law: federal immigration law, the state’s non-detainer law, and Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance.
“It’s going to be very complicated,” she told The Intercept. “I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”
A white, artificial pine tree stands in the corner of Catalan-Ramirez’s family’s home two weeks after Christmas. On the wall behind it hang stockings bearing the names of his and Adame’s children – Abraham, Sharol, and Wilmer. On another wall, there’s a heart-shaped picture frame, filled with photos of the couple of 10 years.
But Christmas this year was lonely. “It was a difficult one,” Adame told me, speaking in Spanish. “We spent it here alone, just hoping for his return.”
His absence was particularly difficult for their 4- and 8-year-old children. He is someone “who would give lots of hugs and kisses to his children. He was very expressive of how much he cared for them,” Adame said. Even now, “he makes sure his children are reminded that he loves them.” Wilmer, their youngest child, who witnessed the arrest, remains traumatized by what he saw, asking his mom why police officers are bad people.
On the days her husband was able to call home, he seldom had good news to share. While behind bars, he had experienced seizures and started to suffer from chronic high blood pressure, Adame said. He told her that guards at the detention center sometimes made xenophobic comments, and he feared he’d been singled out because of the lawsuit. His spirits went up and down, but still, those phone calls were a godsend for Adame.
She, too, had seen her life change drastically. When Catalan-Ramirez was violently arrested, her first instinct was to contact the Spanish broadcaster Telemundo.
“It was really shocking to see people come to your home without your permission, to attack us aggressively, physically, to take someone who was just recovering from wounds two months prior – to take him and hurt him that way,” she said. The world had to know what happened.
A journalist at Telemundo introduced her to the network of immigrants’ rights activists in the city – groups like Mijente and Organized Communities Against Deportations – and the lawyers that led Catalan-Ramirez’s two-pronged immigration and civil rights battle.
She had never been involved in community organizing or campaigning, but she became a public face in the battle against deportations and the gang database in Chicago, speaking at news conferences after every court hearing and giving occasional media interviews.
“I don’t know if the public campaign has been favorable to Wilmer,” Adame said, “but we’re definitely doing it so that other people are aware of what’s happening, not only in Chicago, but also in other states.”
The public campaign, Adame learned 10 days later, did indeed pay off.
Catalan-Ramirez’s lawyers challenged his deportation in immigration court by asking for withholding of removal, which protects a person from being deported to a country where he fears persecution. He has also applied for a U-visa, which is given to crime victims who have suffered serious injury and cooperate with law enforcement, as he did after the January 2017 drive-by shooting that left him partially paralyzed. A U-visa creates a pathway to citizenship.
Typically, a denial of a withholding of removal claim means deportation, even if there’s a pending U-visa application; an individual does not have to be physically present in the United States to be granted U status. But while Catalan-Ramirez’s case was pending before the immigration court, a federal appeals court decided that an immigration judge has the authority to grant a temporary waiver to an individual seeking U status. In Catalan-Ramirez’s case, a waiver would mean his deportation would be put on hold at least until the U.S. government makes a decision.
Acting on that ruling, Catalan-Ramirez’s lawyers asked the immigration court for a waiver, and ICE lawyers responded by presenting evidence of his gang membership – based on Chicago Police Department records – that would make him ineligible. In response, Catalan-Ramirez’s lawyers reached a settlement with the city of Chicago. On December 5, they dismissed the lawsuit against the city and the police department, and, in exchange, the police department sent a letter to the immigration judge stating that it has no objection to Catalan-Ramirez being granted a U visa. Despite police records, the letter continues, the department “cannot verify that Mr. Catalan-Ramirez is a gang member” under Illinois law.
The settlement “gave us a lot of knowledge about the gang database that we didn’t have before, and CPD admitting at least in Wilmer’s case that they had no information to verify that he’s a gang member, and yet he’s in that database,” one of his lawyers, del Valle said. “So it’s a pretty big win, not only for Wilmer, but for the gang database campaign.”
Last week, immigration officials agreed to release Catalan-Ramirez under an order of supervision, and in exchange, he dropped the lawsuit against ICE. He was also granted a stay of deportation until his U-visa application is decided. That could take a while, but in the meantime, though he will have to periodically check in with ICE, he can otherwise return to the life he had lived before he was so roughly woken from his sleep 10 months ago.
On Monday, Catalan-Ramirez stepped out of ICE’s downtown Chicago field office, where he was met by a group of supporters chanting, “Wilmer! Wilmer!” For almost a minute, he held his children in a close embrace.