In Arresting an Immigrant-Rights Activist, ICE Shows Its New Power

On Thursday, after officials in the New York City offices of Immigration
and Customs Enforcement informed him that he was going to be deported,
the immigrant-rights activist Ravi Ragbir fainted. An ambulance was
called to take Ragbir and his wife, Amy Gottlieb, who had accompanied
him to ICE’s offices, to New York-Presbyterian Hospital. When they
arrived at the hospital, Gottlieb was asked to get out—to make room, she
thought, for her husband to be wheeled out on a stretcher. But she was
then surrounded by ICE agents, and watched as the ambulance sped away.
The agents said that they would soon let her know her husband’s
whereabouts. A full day passed before she got a call from Ragbir
himself. He was at a detention center in Miami.

Ragbir and Gottlieb, who are both fifty-three, have lived with the
possibility of his deportation for a long time. A native of Trinidad,
Ragbir came to the U.S. on a valid visa, in 1991. But following a
wire-fraud conviction, in 2001, he has been allowed to remain in the
country only at the discretion of immigration officials. During these
years, officials had granted Ragbir a series of temporary stays, taking
into account his family ties in the U.S. and his work in New York City
as the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, a group that
advocates immigration reform and offers support to individuals fighting
deportation. Yet Ragbir and Gottlieb had known that his mandatory
check-in with ICE last week might end differently—everything had changed
after Donald Trump took office. They and their legal team had been
preparing for the check-in for days, trying to anticipate different
contingencies. Alina Das, his lawyer, had met with Scott Mechkowski, the
assistant director of ICE’s New York City field office. According to
Das, she had offered Mechkowski documentation in support of Ragbir’s
case, and Mechkowski had said that he would consider granting him a
stay. But, ultimately, he didn’t. (Mechkowski could not be reached for

“It’s arbitrary and cruel,” Gottlieb told me this week. “Someone makes
an appointment to go into a regularly scheduled appointment with a
government agency, and that agency snatches you away from your family.”

Ragbir immigrated to the U.S. legally, and he is married to a U.S.
citizen. But federal law allows immigrants with certain types of
criminal convictions to be deported. His wire-fraud case was part of an
investigation into a mortgage company that he worked for as a
salesman—he was accused of accepting fraudulent loan applications—and,
after his conviction, he served thirty months in prison. “Immigrants
with criminal convictions essentially receive a double punishment,” Das
told me. “Even after they pay their ‘debt to society,’ they go through
the process of facing deportation.” Following his time in prison, Ragbir
also spent nearly two years in immigration detention while his
deportation case was considered.

Ragbir was eventually released on order of supervision, which required
him to comply with regular check-ins but spared him deportation. In
2014, the Obama Administration issued new guidelines for ICE that
prioritized the deportation of immigrants who were considered
public-safety threats or who had committed “serious” crimes—Ragbir and
his lawyers considered this to be an additional measure of protection.
But Trump reversed those guidelines immediately upon taking office.
During the campaign, he had promised a crackdown on immigration, and,
once President, he allowed ICE more leeway in picking its targets.

One of the core missions of the New Sanctuary Coalition, where Ragbir has
worked since 2010, is to help people in precisely his current situation.
The group sends representatives to accompany people during their
check-ins with ICE and offers legal and advocacy services as needed. In
March, at Ragbir’s last check-in, a handful of members from the
coalition, along with New York City Council members and state senators,
accompanied him to ICE’s offices. Juan Carlos Ruiz, a founder of New
Sanctuary, thinks that the presence of so many supporters overwhelmed
the agency. Officials told Ragbir to come back in ten months. “I think
they’re afraid when we’re an organized, aware, educated society to
what’s going on,” Ruiz told me. “It takes away their power. It takes
away the arbitrariness. Our practices and programs are designed to
dismantle that. We put a name and a face to what’s going on.”

Ruiz believes that these tactics have allowed Ragbir and others to stave
off deportation for as long as they have. “The protection they have had
is from the visibility, which has given their cases urgency,” Ruiz told
me. Still, he admits that there are limitations to what the group can
do—and Ragbir’s case illustrates this. The week before Ragbir’s arrest,
ICE apprehended Jean Montrevil, a Haitian immigrant and activist whose
deportation New Sanctuary had successfully fought, in 2010. Montrevil
had been due for a mandatory check-in in the coming days, but ICE agents
picked him up where there would be few witnesses, and no supporters
standing with him. Montrevil’s arrest had worried Ragbir and his
supporters. “As soon as Jean was picked up, we knew it was a risk. We
knew we had to be careful,” Gottlieb told me. On Tuesday morning,
Montrevil was deported from Florida to Haiti. His ex-wife and their
three children remain in New York.

Last week, ICE released a statement on Ragbir’s case. He had, according
to agency, “exhausted his petitions and appeals through the immigration
courts, the Board of Immigration appeals, and the U.S. District Court.”
In other words, it was time for him to go. But Das said that ICE is
wrong. There are ongoing legal proceedings, including a petition to reverse his 2001 conviction and sentencing that has been pending since

On Wednesday, ICE agreed to transport Ragbir to a detention facility in
the New York region; a judge had agreed with his lawyers that he
shouldn’t be held in Florida, thousands of miles from home. Over the
weekend, Gottlieb had flown to see Ragbir in Florida, where they spoke
through Plexiglas. Gottlieb, an immigrant-rights activist herself, is
used to these fights, but not to ones that hit so close. “How can this
be happening to people we love?” she said. “To people I love? To my

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