Ravi Ragbir: On the razor’s edge at ICE check-ins

Ravi Ragbir, the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, on March 9 in the Village on his way down to Lower Manhattan for a check-in with an ICE officer. Ragbir didn’t know if he would be coming back out of the check-in or not. Photo by Tequila Minsky
Ravi Ragbir, the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, on March 9 in the Village on his way down to Lower Manhattan for a check-in with an ICE officer. Ragbir didn’t know if he would be coming back out of the check-in or not. Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY TEQUILA MINSKY | When Ravi Ragbir tried to address the crowd at Foley Square on March 9, he was overcome with emotion. At least for that night and the next month he would be going home. Also, during the day’s whole ordeal, he was clearly moved that hundreds came out to support him.

Only two hours earlier, numerous faith-based groups, immigration activists dozens from union 32BJ SEIU and local politicians rallied in support of Ragbir during his “check-in” with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers at 26 Federal Plaza. What had been fairly routine in past years now seemed ominous.

Ragbir, like dozens of others every day, did not know when he entered the Lower Manhattan building if he would see his family again. The March 9 demonstration, billed as a solidarity rally against deportation, was in support of Ragbir and all the others — dozens of New Yorkers facing deportation who must check-in with ICE officers. With a new hardline administration in Washington, the process that usually was predictable was now anxiety-ridden, with a check-in that was feared could go either way.

From Trinidad and Tobago, Ragbir legally emigrated to the U.S. 25 years ago. A 2001 wire-fraud conviction — for which he served a two-and-half year sentence, followed by two years in immigrant detention — left his green card subject to review. Subsequently, authorities exercising prosecutorial discretion granted him a stay of deportation until 2018, with regular check-ins required. At some points, he wore an ankle-bracelet monitor and had to report weekly in Brooklyn.

Although he was granted a two-year stay last year, he still had to report for a check-in this March 9.

In today’s climate, with the president’s actions on immigration, Ragbir couldn’t predict the outcome of this year’s check-in. At the morning rally, he affirmed to those assembled, “I’m going to see the immigration officers. I’m not going underground.”

Ragbir is now an outspoken immigrant-rights activist and the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, based at Judson Memorial Church, on Washington Square South. Launched in 2007, the New York chapter of the New Sanctuary Movement was co-founded by Reverend Dr. Donna Schaper, Judson’s senior minister, to engage faith-based groups in support of immigrants living in the U.S. without legal status to stay here.

This movement aimed to give “sanctuary” to these deportable immigrants, many of whom had children who were U.S. citizen. Instead of hiding them, however, the movement proposed to publicize their stories, to put a human face on the issues, raise public awareness of their plight, and encourage legislative reform.

Ragbir pioneered the idea of accompanying those who are scheduled to check-in.

“We partner U.S. citizens with immigrants in this crises,” he said at the rally. They get support from the community. Ragbir leads trainings, knowing that it makes a difference if a minister and community members accompany the check-in.

Ragbir’s legal team is led by Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University School of Law. She has worked on his case for the past eight years and with their team for the last few months, and has met weekly to work on his case. She, too, emphasizes how local politicians can support immigrants in their districts by showing up at check-ins.

At Ragbir’s recent check-in, he was accompanied by state Senator Gustavo Rivera, City Councilmembers Jumaane Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, along with clergy, his lawyers and his wife.

Ragbir’s wife, Amy Gottleib, is an immigration advocate for American Friends Service Committee.

Speaking before his latest check-in, she said, “This is a different atmosphere, so we don’t know what to expect. Trump said, ‘We’re going to get the really bad ones out.’ Ravi, along with many others, are a part of their community.”

She also stressed what a difference community support makes.

Recently, Ragbir was recognized by the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators with the Immigrant Excellence Award, given to those demonstrating a “deep commitment to the enhancement of their community.”

During the uncertain hour while Ragbir and those accompanying him were inside the ICE office, rally participants joined in what is known as a Jericho Walk, an interfaith walk of solidarity asking for immigrant justice, seven times encircling in silence the federal building, followed by a prayer.

There was quite a sigh when it was learned by a text message that Ragbir had been released. To a jubilant crowd, an exhausted Ragbir exited, joining his supporters at Foley Square. His lawyer Das addressed the crowd and reminded them, “Not everyone is this lucky.”

“We are saddened that we’ve been asked to come back in one month,” she said, adding, “Ravi has a stay of removal that is in place until 2018.”

At a short rally after the check-in, an emotionally drained Ragbir addressed the crowd.

“I am happy,” he said. “But I have to go through this again.”

Members of the crowd shouted, “We love you Ravi. We’ll be there.”

With emotion, he said, “I have the knife of the guillotine over my head.”

He said they asked him to return on April 11 with his travel documents. And when they ask for that, “It means one thing, right?” Ragbir continued. “They said, ‘No, everything is going to stay the same.’ But if everything stays the same, I shouldn’t be checking in next month.

“I’m a realist,” he said. “I need to know what could happen and have to prepare for what could happen. I hope I’m wrong.”

Ragbir’s debriefing remarks were punctuated with support.

“We’re with you Ravi!” came calls from the crowd.

“On Nov. 8, when we saw the election results, we knew that this would be a hard day,” he went on. “But we were wrong. I’m glad to be wrong this time. I hope I’m wrong on April 11. No matter what, I will be ready. I’m not going to let them just take me away. I’m going to stand up and fight and speak about it.”

It was emphasized numerous times during this post-check-in rally how numerous people faced the same uncertainty as Ragbir at their own check-ins.

“I have support, but imagine those who do not,” the activist said. “I am the focus right now, but the focus should be on everyone.”

To the chants of support, he asked, “What are we going to do?” Ragbir invited the crowd to rally with him and for the other immigrants on April 11.

In particular, Councilmember Williams, from Brooklyn, was really affected by this check-in visit. For him, it was a real eye-opener seeing how many people were awaiting their own check-ins, full of fear, without attorneys to represent them.

“It’s one thing to hear,” he said, “another to see a room full of families, grandmothers and children facing deportation with no attorney.”

Williams met one grandmother wearing a GPS ankle bracelet.

“How is this American?” he posted on Facebook.