Every day for almost two months, Naomi Rosales Ramirez has been confronted with an idea: The circumstances of your birth determine who you are. It’s a belief she spent years undoing, and at age 34, it had become a myth as foreign as Nayarit, the Mexican state where she took her first steps. Her life was America, and her reality female.
Ramirez, an undocumented transgender woman, has spent almost her entire life in the United States, emigrating with her father when she was just 5 years old. She transitioned in Phoenix, graduating from North High School; as an adult, she performed at drag fundraisers, raising money for the local LGBTQ community. Until last month, she was her mother's roommate, caretaker, and source of solace. She's still her closest friend.
But today, Ramirez sits in a detention center in Eloy, surrounded by men in an all-male facility. Ramirez is poised to be sent back to Mexico – a country of which she has few memories – because of a series of local policies that created a fast-track deportation process, moving her from a Phoenix light rail station to ICE custody within 24 hours.
She's scared of where she is, and, as she anticipates being sent to a country that's increasingly hostile toward transgender women, even more scared of where she’ll go.
And It all started with a step onto a platform for a train she never intended to ride, and a missing $2 ticket.
From Light Rail to ICE Custody
In 2017, Valley Metro launched its Respect the Ride campaign, which added increased security on light rail platforms and "paid fare zone” signs that delineated a person’s need to pay when on light rail property. (Did you know it's illegal to sit or stand on a light rail platform without first purchasing a train ticket?) Security incidents on the light rail line decreased by 40 percent between 2018 and 2019, according to the Valley Metro website, which directly attributes these changes to the campaign’s efficacy.
But critics say the initiative also placed added pressure on law enforcement to enforce more stringently pre-existing rules about not being on the platform without a ticket. They say this has contributed to the criminalization of “undesirable” individuals breaking minor rules in downtown Phoenix — from people experiencing homelessness, to poorer individuals of color, to Ramirez, who claimed merely to be walking her friend to the train.
On July 5, Naomi Rosales Ramirez walked onto the light rail platform at McDowell Road and Central Avenue. At the same time, Phoenix Police Department officers and police assistants – uniformed civilians who assist with more minor crime enforcement – were conducting a random fare inspection at the station.
It was 102 degrees, even in the early evening. Ramirez was with a friend. She said she only had stepped onto the platform to accompany her friend while the friend waited for the train to arrive, police reports noted. The two were drinking canned AriZona Iced Tea, which police mistook for alcohol, according to Sergeant Tommy Thompson, public information officer at the department.
When a police assistant discovered the pair were merely hydrating, he continued with his inspection, asking for their train tickets. Ramirez didn't have one. She wasn't planning to ride.
It’s standard practice to run background checks before issuing a citation, according to Thompson. But that was all it took: When Phoenix police ran her information, the system showed Ramirez had a warrant for her arrest, for failure to appear in court for two misdemeanor assault charges she’d accrued in 2012. There was nothing else officers could do, Thompson said. They had to book her into Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office custody.
Such charges can come from a range of actions, from spitting to actual physical violence. Details around the nature of Ramirez’s charges are sparse – the municipal court of the city of Phoenix's misdemeanor complaint provides no additional background. It’s not surprising Ramirez, an undocumented individual, would miss her court date – studies consistently show people who are undocumented are more likely to forgo civil and criminal proceedings unrelated to their immigration status out of fear of being deported.
After officers found the warrant, Ramirez was arrested and taken to Fourth Avenue Jail, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement was waiting for her.
In 2017, the same year as the launch of the Respect the Ride initiative, newly elected Sheriff Paul Penzone, who’d promised to end former Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s "unorthodox and divisive" enforcement practices in his campaign, began allowing ICE in Fourth Avenue Jail, where all inmates initially are taken for booking after arrest.
Because ICE agents now interview every individual who comes into MCSO custody, Ramirez was flagged as undocumented. When she was released on July 6, the agency arrested her outside the jail, ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe confirmed.
From there, she was taken to La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, an all-male detention facility, advocates from Trans Queer Pueblo said. The Phoenix organization, which regularly corresponds with transgender immigrants held in ICE centers throughout the Southwest, received word that Ramirez had been detained through another inmate at the facility.
“Putting her in an all-male facility is nothing short of torture,” Stephanie Figgins, communications director of Trans Queer Pueblo.
La Palma Correctional Center is owned by CoreCivic, formerly called Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company that contracts with federal immigration enforcement. In June of this year, the company announced La Palma would now exclusively house adult ICE detainees, but declined to give details about whether they'd open the facility up to female migrants. Twenty-five percent of CoreCivic’s revenue currently comes from ICE, an agency that has come under fire in recent years for its treatment of LGBTQ and HIV-positive people in its custody.
Transgender migrant detainees have decried conditions inside facilities. Though ICE has an Obama-era guidance memo on caring for transgender detainees, facilities like La Palma are not required to comply with these guidelines. Since last May, two transgender women, Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez and Johana Medina Leon, have died while in ICE custody. According to a Center for American Progress report, the average amount of time a transgender person spends in detention is more than double the average time other migrants spend in ICE custody.
ICE declined to comment on Ramirez’s specific whereabouts or housing conditions, as did CoreCivic. ICE spokesperson Pitts O’Keefe simply stated, “Ramirez-Perez will remain in ICE custody pending a decision by an immigration judge with the Executive Office for Immigration Review.”
Tickets to Ride
At a press conference in support of Ramirez at the McDowell/Central station, the site of her arrest, on Monday, Figgins of Trans Queer Pueblo said, “Ramirez’s case is not unique: As a migrant community, we actually have fear of riding the light rail.”
Allegations that people of color are especially vulnerable on the light rail are not new. On April 16, at the same station where Ramirez was arrested, Viri Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, filmed police assistants interrogating Lyle Daychild, an indigenous Arizona State University student, about his light rail pass. He had a student U-pass, good for unlimited rides on the Valley Metro, but police assistants refused to believe it was his until he showed multiple forms of identification.
“This happens all the time,” Daychild said. “Every time I come on, I have to show more than two IDs.”
In August 2017, 52-year-old Ramon Casteneda Andrade was arrested by Phoenix police for failing to pay the light rail fare. The officer arresting him suspected he was undocumented, and called ICE to confirm. The Phoenix Police Department handed over Casteneda Andrade, a citizen of Mexico, to immigration authorities the next day, New Times reported.
“People are being deported for a simple act of being in a public space that taxpayers pay billions of dollars for,” Hernandez of Poder in Action said at the press conference. “The idea that $2 can literally put someone in jail, for something we pay so much money for. ... We are demanding for the police department to stop enforcing these absurd Respect the Ride policies, and for everyone who supports the light rail to take responsibility of what it means to have a place that criminalizes people, that arrests people, and that deports people.”
Ramirez’s mother, along with advocates from Trans Queer Pueblo, Poder in Action, and Re-Frame Youth Arts Center, are calling for Ramirez’s release from ICE, and asking that Mayor Kate Gallego examine Valley Metro’s role in aiding deportations in Phoenix.
“What we can tell you is that as an organization of poor folks, we very much support public transportation,” said Figgins of Trans Queer Pueblo. “But as an organization of people of color and of migrant people, we’re terrified for our community to be using the service of the light rail because it has become a site of the hyper-criminalization of black and brown migrants and undocumented folks.”
Valley Metro declined to comment on the specific allegations.
“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,” Valley Metro Communications Manager Susan 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.”
Ramirez's court date for her assault charges was rescheduled for July 19. But she missed it – her light rail journey had taken her 60 miles away to Eloy, where transportation, of any kind, was not an option. Municipal court makes no provisions for immigration detention.
The Phoenix Police Department stated that it did not contact ICE; officers simply turned Ramirez over to the Sheriff's Office, as they’re legally required to do. Since 2018, ICE agents have flagged more than 3,600 detainees from within Phoenix jails, according to MCSO spokesperson Joaquin Enriquez.
On that day in early July, for lacking a $2 ticket, Ramirez became one of them.
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When work as an undocumented person in Arizona was hard to come by, Naomi Rosales Ramirez took a job as a housekeeper. When her mother had a heart attack in December 2018, Ramirez, the oldest of three, became a caretaker.
“She quit her job to look after me,” her mother, María Teresa Ramirez, said through a translator. “I’m alone now, and I’m scared that if I have a heart attack again, no one will be there to find me.”
Today, Ramirez is an interpreter at La Palma, helping fellow inmates navigate calls to family members or questions about their deportation proceedings. She’s still looking for a lawyer of her own.
Back in the Valley, the light rail chugs on — residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of its expansion into south Phoenix on Tuesday.