A minor infraction of Valley Metro’s code of conduct quickly led Naomi Ramirez Rosales to an immigration detention center, where she now faces deportation to Mexico.
Groups advocating for the release of Ramirez Rosales said Aug. 26 that she was walking to her Phoenix home on the afternoon of July 5, when she stopped at the light rail platform on Central Avenue and McDowell Road to get a drink from the water fountain. A Phoenix police assistant conducting a fare inspection discovered Ramirez Rosales had an arrest warrant from 2012.
Ramirez Rosales, 34, arrived in the U.S. at age 5 when her mother moved her family from the coastal Mexican state of Nayarit to Arizona. Ramirez Rosales is a transgender woman. The day after being arrested by Phoenix police, while still in the downtown jail operated by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, she was taken into custody by federal immigration agents.
She is waiting to see an immigration judge, and currently detained at the La Palma Correctional Center, an immigration detention facility in Eloy. There, even though she identifies as a woman, Ramirez Rosales is held in an all-male unit, advocates said.
The case of Ramirez Rosales crystallizes the path that connects local and regional law enforcement to the federal immigration system, and has led some advocates to call for Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego to reform policing of public transit spaces.
“As a trans woman, as a migrant woman originally from Guatemala, I feel unsafe when boarding the light rail, when boarding a bus, even though we need to use it. And that’s because (Valley Metro) is working with police, and police is working with immigration,” said Karla Bautista, a coordinator for Trans Queer Pueblo, a local community group.
Bautista assists and advocates for LGBT migrants who are held in immigration detention centers across the nation.
Phoenix Police Department spokesman Sgt. Tommy Thompson said officers didn’t contact U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement in Ramirez Rosales’s case.
Instead, ICE agents have a systematic way of screening all persons arrested in most of the Phoenix metro area: They interview every person brought into the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office jail system. Most local police agencies transport people they arrest to Maricopa County’s Fourth Avenue Jail for booking.
That’s where federal immigration agents flagged Ramirez Rosales, ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said in a statement.
ICE took custody of Ramirez Rosales on July 6, she said.
Ramirez Rosales had been previously deported to Mexico in 2005, Pitts O’Keefe said.
From light rail platform to possible deportation
In a written statement, Thompson explained Phoenix Police’s version of what led to Ramirez Rosales’s arrest on the light rail platform.
He said a police assistant with the Phoenix Police Transit Unit was conducting fare inspections at the light rail station on Central Avenue and McDowell Road when he approached Ramirez Rosales and another person she was with. Police assistants patrol light rail platforms and ride on bus routes. They have the same authority as any other police officer, Thompson explained.
He also shared two brief surveillance videos. One 12-second video shows Ramirez Rosales and the other person walking past the red “Paid Fare Zone” line. Another 49-second video shows the moments when Ramirez Rosales and the other person arrived at the platform and a police assistant quickly approached them.
Ramirez Rosales, wearing gray tennis shoes, blue jeans and a gray baseball shirt with black sleeves, is seen holding a tall can in her right hand. Her small black purse dangles next to her left hip. On the opposite side of the platform, a Phoenix police patrol car is parked. She and the other person stop near the water fountain, but don’t use it. When the police assistant begins approaching them, Ramirez Rosales notices. Her right leg jitters back-and-forth, and she looks away, taking a long sip from her canned drink.
“The (police assistant) originally thought the two were drinking alcohol from open containers. The (police assistant) approached the two individuals and observed they had Arizona Ice Tea cans, not alcohol,” Thompson said in a statement. “The (police assistant) continued with the fare inspection, asking if they had paid the fare. Naomi said she was walking her friend to the platform and she did not pay (the) fare. Naomi’s friend produced a ‘reduced fare,’ which was not valid. Both individuals had committed violations.”
During the process of issuing citations, a background check on Ramirez Rosales revealed she had an arrest warrant.
Phoenix Municipal Court records show the warrant was for a 2012 complaint against Ramirez Rosales. Two people alleged she committed low-level criminal assault.
Ramirez Rosales was summoned to appear in court for this case in May 2012, but she didn’t, so the arrest warrant was issued, records show.
The two charges were for knowingly touching “another person with the intent to injure, insult or provoke such person,” which is a Class 3 misdemeanor.
Advocates for Ramirez Rosales’s release believe law enforcement targeted her, and that the situation escalated unfairly.
“We have an undocumented trans woman who deserves to rest, to drink water in a hard and harsh city. Just standing on a platform shouldn’t lead to someone’s arrest and deportation,” said Stephanie Figgins with Trans Queer Pueblo. “That’s what we understand, that police are fishing, and hunting for targets, and they prey on poor people, and they prey on people of color.”
Thompson said police have an obligation to enforce a warrant.
“The bottom line is: (the police Transit Unit) were doing their fare inspection, and she had a warrant, and the warrant is from a judge saying, ‘Bring her to me’,” he said. Thompson added the person who was with Ramirez Rosales was “allowed to leave with a warning about paying fare.”
A municipal judge ordered Ramirez Rosales released on her own recognizance the day after her arrest, on July 6, according to court records.
It is illegal for agencies like MCSO to detain people longer to allow time for ICE agents to pick them up. ICE can take custody of people inside jails only during the release process, which takes several hours.
“The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office does not transfer inmates to ICE custody,” said Sgt. Joaquin Enriquez, an MCSO spokesman. “They are released. ICE has the opportunity to take custody of individuals they deem necessary based on their criteria before they leave the jail facility.”
In fiscal years 2017 and 2018, ICE identified 6,538 people held inside MCSO’s Fourth Avenue Jail it wanted to arrest, according to TRAC data. In the first three months of the current fiscal year (October through December), another 678 were identified by ICE for arrest at that jail, according to TRAC.
In Ramirez Rosales’s case, ICE took custody of her inside the MCSO jail.
At the La Palma facility where she is being held, ICE recently expanded its holding capacity from 1,000 detainees to 3,240, as a contract that CoreCivic, the private company that operates the facility, had with the State of California to jail thousands of inmates phased out, according to Pinal Central.
As of December 31, 2018, ICE had 1,054 individuals in its custody at La Palma, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. Of the detainees at La Palma, 73% had no criminal convictions. Nationwide, 63% of the 47,486 people held at immigration detention centers have no criminal record, according to a TRAC analysis.
Light rail developments and security
Besides Trans Queer Pueblo, other community groups advocating for Ramirez Rosales are Poder in Action, which advocates for policing reform and pushes for accountability, and Re:Frame Youth Arts Center, an arts and youth community group.
They drew attention to how economic development projects like light rail extension plans, which Phoenix voters resoundingly supported in Tuesday’s special election, relate to immigrant and low-income communities, especially when considering the role of police and Valley Metro’s security rules.
“This case is also important because it speaks to the intersection of gentrification, criminalization and privatization. It speaks to the lack of imagination of Phoenix policymakers,” Figgins said. “We call on Mayor Kate Gallego to end the polimigra (collaboration between Phoenix PD and ICE) and end Valley Metro’s ‘Respect the Ride’ policy, which encourages racial profiling and puts people of color into the hands of the violent Phoenix PD.”
Annie DeGraw, spokeswoman for Gallego, said the mayor had “no comment” on those demands.
Respect the Ride is a code of conduct adopted by Valley Metro in October 2017. It increased security enforcement to discourage “disruptive, intrusive, unsafe or inappropriate behaviors,” according to Valley Metro.
“Having valid fare is the most basic of our rules,” Susan Tierney, spokeswoman for Valley Metro, said in a statement.
Since March 2018, all light rail stations have “Paid Fare Zone” striping and signs, she said.
“Our Respect the Ride Code of Conduct is about behavior, not status, in an effort to provide everyone with a safe and positive rider experience,” Tierney said. “The Respect the Ride program stemmed from rider feedback that requested greater enforcement, helping to create a transit environment that can be enjoyed by all. Valley Metro welcomes all individuals on board our system as long as rules are followed.”
To enforce those rules, Valley Metro works with local police in Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa, and hires security officers with Allied Universal, Tierney said. Private security personnel have authority to issue citations, but not to make arrests.
Isabel Garcia, a program director for Poder in Action, pointed to the Phoenix Police Department’s ranking as the police force with the most police shootings in 2018.
She said the case of Ramirez Rosales is an example of violent police policies that target migrant and low-income communities.
“With transit-oriented development comes gentrification, and the increased policing of poor folks, so this just another thing Mayor Kate Gallego needs to look at – the over-policing in communities that are being gentrified by things like the light rail,” she added.
City leaders recently created a Phoenix police reform committee, which will hold its first meeting Aug. 29. Phoenix City Council formed the committee after community outrage following a June incident in which a black family was held at gunpoint for allegedly shoplifting from a dollar store.
‘She’s my company. She’s my caregiver’
Ramirez Rosales’ mother, Maria Teresa Ramirez Rosales, spoke on Monday. She said she had a heart attack in December, and her daughter has been the one to care for her.
“She is my company. She is my caregiver,” she said.
The mother said she raised her three children on her own. She moved to Arizona 29 years ago, she said, to join her husband who was working for a plastics manufacturer here. But he died five years later, she said.
The mother said Ramirez Rosales had been celebrating the Fourth of July with friend and was walking home the day she was arrested.
Maria Teresa said she wants her daughter to be next to her.
“The only thing that I want is to have her with me,” she said. Her eyes welled up. Before the tears could fall, she wiped them with a white cloth tied around her neck.
“We are just interested in her being well, and being with us,” the mother said.
Inside detention, transgender migrants often face discrimination and harassment. Recognizing this, ICE in 2015 created standards of care for the transgender people in its custody, stating it “will provide a respectful, safe, and secure environment for all detainees, including those individuals who identify as transgender.”
ICE only has one detention center, the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico, with a designated unit just for transgender women. That facility is in a remote part of the state, meaning access to family, community resources and lawyers is limited. There have been several calls for investigation into poor medical services and mistreatment at that facility.
In Phoenix, Maria Teresa Ramirez Rosales not only worries about the wellbeing of her daughter inside the detention center, but that she could be harmed if she’s deported.
According to a Transgender Law Center study from 2016, transgender women in Mexico face “pervasive discrimination, hatred, violence, police abuse, rape, torture, and vicious murder.”
“I don’t want her to be sent to Mexico,” she said. “I don’t want her to be hurt over there, if here sometimes it’s bad, imagine there where it’s a machista country,” she said.