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Transgender Woman in ICE Custody After Light-Rail Arrest May Be Released

Naomi Ramirez Rosales, 34, is currently in ICE custody after entering a "paid fare zone" on a Valley Metro light rail platform without a ticket.EXPAND
Naomi Ramirez Rosales, 34, is currently in ICE custody after entering a "paid fare zone" on a Valley Metro light rail platform without a ticket.
Stephanie Figgins

A transgender woman who stepped onto a Phoenix light rail platform without paying a $2 ticket earlier this year and ended up in immigration detention may get a chance for temporary release on Friday.

Migrant justice organizations are calling on Valley Metro and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who sits as a vice chair on Valley Metro's board, to advocate for her release ahead of an immigration hearing.

Naomi Ramirez Rosales, 34, walked onto a Valley Metro light rail platform at Central Avenue and McDowell Road on a sweltering evening in July 2019. Phoenix police officers were conducting a routine “sweep” of the platform, checking the tickets of every person standing on the platform. Ramirez Rosales didn’t have a ticket – she told police she was merely waiting with her friend who was boarding the next train.

But because Valley Metro policy dictates that people must have a ticket to stand on the platform, even if they are not planning to ride a train, police ran her information.

From there, things quickly escalated, moving her from light rail to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody within 24 hours – officers found a warrant for her arrest for “failure to appear in court” for two misdemeanor assault charges she’d accrued in 2012. They took her to Fourth Avenue Jail, where all people arrested within the county are taken for initial booking. Because the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, under Sheriff Paul Penzone, continues to allow ICE to screen each individual who enters the jail, Ramirez Rosales was flagged for deportation. ICE agents were waiting for her upon her release from jail the next day.

Amid outcry over her arrest by the federal immigration agency, some critics pointed to her assault charges, labeling Ramirez Rosales a dangerous criminal. A police report obtained by Phoenix New Times now offers a window into the nature of these 2012 misdemeanor charges.

On March 10, according to a police report, Ramirez Rosales punched a man and attempted to punch another at Pat O's Bunkhouse Saloon in Phoenix. Police said the transgender woman, who was very intoxicated, said she couldn’t understand why the two men wouldn’t let her join a game of poker, which had already started. Police were called, and they escorted Ramirez Rosales home.

Ramirez Rosales, who is an undocumented individual, then missed her court date for these two misdemeanor charges. Because of this act, a missing $2 ticket took her on a one-way trip to ICE detention.

Since her arrest at the light rail earlier this year, Ramirez Rosales has spent six months in ICE custody. ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe confirmed her ongoing detention, but would not comment on where the transgender woman is incarcerated.

Advocates say she is being held in La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, a correctional facility that formerly held California inmates and was converted to an ICE detention center in June 2018. La Palma is a detention center for men with a 3,000-bed capacity.

Stephanie Figgins of Trans Queer Pueblo, a Phoenix-based advocacy group that regularly communicates with Ramirez Rosales, said the transgender woman has told them she feels unsafe daily in the facility, and that she has been mocked by officers and other inmates for wearing makeup while detained.

Her bond hearing is scheduled for this Friday, December 20, according to Figgins. If the judge determines she's eligible, a bond would allow her to prepare her asylum case outside detention. Migrants who are released on bond are more likely to win their deportation cases, according to Freedom for Immigrants, probably because it increases their access to legal representation.

Trans Queer Pueblo, along with advocates from Living United for Change in Arizona, Poder in Action, Mass Liberation Project, and Puente Human Rights Movement are calling on Valley Metro to contact Michael Zackowski, the assistant director for the ICE field office in Phoenix, and ask for her immediate release on parole.

These groups long have alleged Valley Metro’s policies of random ticket checks under its "Respect the Ride" campaign, first launched in 2017, disproportionately affect people of color and undocumented individuals, who the groups argue are more likely to have unresolved warrants on their records due to the county’s history of racial bias in its policing and the local immigrant community’s fear of law enforcement.

“These Valley Metro-Phoenix PD sweeps do not keep riders safe,” a letter the groups sent to the Valley Metro board of directors on Tuesday states. “Rather, they put people of color, migrants, LGBTQ+ folks, and poor folks into life-threatening contact with the deadliest police force in the United States, and make every ride a potential fast-track to deportation.”

Ramirez Rosales came to the United States with her mother when she was 2 years old. If she is deported, she will return to Mexico, her place of birth, despite U.S. asylum law and the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols’ recognition that the country can be a dangerous place for transgender women.

“We encourage you to be part of that vision by pressuring ICE to immediately release Naomi on parole so that she may spend the holidays at home with her elderly mother,” the letter goes on to say. “This outcry of our community demonstrates the level of support Naomi will return to upon her release.”

Susan Tierney of Valley Metro provided the following statement:

"Valley Metro seeks to create a positive and safe rider experience for all," Tierney said, noting that the business partners with law enforcement to ensure compliance with their polices. "As a transit agency, we continually evaluate our approach to safety and security based on rider feedback, data and industry best practices. It is important to emphasize that no riders on the Valley Metro system have ever been arrested for having lack of fare."

Mayor Kate Gallego has not yet responded to requests for comment.

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