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Exclusive: Ravi Ragbir Speaks Out After Being Freed from “Unnecessarily Cruel” ICE Detention

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On Monday, a federal judge in New York City ordered the immediate release of immigrant rights leader Ravi Ragbir from immigration jail, calling his detention “unnecessarily cruel.” In a decision read aloud from the bench, District Judge Katherine Forrest said Ragbir had “the freedom to say goodbye,” and compared his treatment to that of “regimes we revile as unjust, regimes where those who have long lived in a country may be taken without notice from streets, home, and work. And sent away. We are not that country; and woe be the day that we become that country under a fiction that laws allow it.” Ragbir is the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition. He’s one of a handful of high-profile immigrant rights activists who have been targeted by the Trump administration. For more on his release and what’s next, we speak with Ravi Ragbir; his wife, immigrant rights advocate Amy Gottlieb; and Ravi’s lawyer, Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU School of Law.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today with some rare good news for immigrant rights advocates.

NEW SANCTUARY COALITION MEMBERS: Ravi! Ravi! Ravi! Ravi! Ravi! Ravi! Ravi!

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Those are members of the New Sanctuary Coalition, cheering an order to release their executive director, Ravi Ragbir, from detention.

Last month, Ragbir was one of several nationally recognized activists to be taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He was handcuffed and arrested during his routine check-in on January 11th, prompting a mass protest that ended with 18 people arrested, including two members of the New York City Council. Ravi was then quickly flown by ICE, in shackles, to the Krome Detention Center in Florida. As he faced imminent deportation to his native Trinidad, public outcry grew. Then ICE informed his lawyers that he’d be brought back to detention in the New York City area.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on Monday, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest said Ravi Ragbir’s detention was “unnecessarily cruel,” and ordered ICE to free him. In a decision she read aloud from the bench, the judge said Ravi Ragbir had, quote, “the freedom to say goodbye,” and compared his treatment to that of, quote, “regimes we revile as unjust, regimes where those who have long lived in a country may be taken without notice from streets, home and work. And sent away. We are not that country; and woe be the day that we become that country under a fiction that laws allow it,” she wrote.

In court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Waterman argued ICE did not violate Ravi Ragbir’s due process rights, because immigrants facing deportation, quote, “are on notice they can be picked up at any time,” unquote. The government asked the judge to stay her order while it appeals, but she refused and instead ordered Ragbir’s immediate release.

And now we welcome back to the New York studio Ravi Ragbir, co-founder and executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, as well as his wife, Amy Gottlieb, a longtime immigrant rights advocate with the American Friends Service Committee, and the head of Ravi Ragbir’s legal team, Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the New York University, NYU, School of Law.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! I mean, seeing this court scene yesterday, being in federal court in downtown Manhattan and hearing this judge read her decision, “There is, and ought to be in this great country, the freedom to say goodbye,” and then going on to say that, as I just read in the headlines, “We are subjected to treatment”—she said, “It ought not to be … that those who have lived without incident in this country for years are subjected to treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust.” This is a stunning rebuke of the Trump administration. So, Ravi Ragbir, last night you were freed. How do you feel right now?

RAVI RAGBIR: I am still in an out-of-body experience, from—this is only 18 days since January 11th, when all of this unfolded. And all I am doing right now is just trying to catch up. So, since January 11th, I was locked in a box, in a cage.

AMY GOODMAN: You went for check-in.

RAVI RAGBIR: Yes. I reported to check in, like I have done for many years, to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And they sat down with everyone here: my attorney Alina Das, my wife Amy Gottlieb. And they said—instead of saying that “We are going to ask you to come back,” which is normally what they would do, they said they’re going to take me away, and I will be deported. So, since then, it has been a—

AMY GOODMAN: Where did they take you that day, January 11th?

RAVI RAGBIR: So, what happened is, I passed out. And I don’t know why. But I knew they were looking for me since January 3rd, and I haven’t been eating and sleeping, so I passed out. And so they took me to—

AMY GOODMAN: You fainted.

RAVI RAGBIR: I fainted. Sorry, I fainted. And then they took me to the hospital. And from the hospital, they took me to Newark airport. And I have looked at this. They had 20 officers watching me. Twenty officers, 10 of them of ICE and 10 NYPD. When NYPD came, it was like, “Hey, guys, what are we doing? Are we watching you watching him?”

AMY GOODMAN: You mean when you were out or in?

RAVI RAGBIR: When I was at Bellevue Hospital. And from Bellevue hospital, they had an entourage of at least 10 cars to take me to the—10 cars to take me to the airport. And I’m sitting down there, looking at this in an out-of-body: What has happened? Why? Where does all this come from?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, in other words, you were not being transported along with another group of detainees. You were being transported by yourself with all of these agents.

RAVI RAGBIR: That’s correct. I’m sitting alone in the van. And, you know, when they took me on the plane, there are another eight officers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As if you are El Chapo or some other major criminal here.

RAVI RAGBIR: I didn’t want to say it that way, because—but, yes, it felt like if as I—I like be most wanted or most—you know, the administration. I don’t like to call his name. But it felt that way.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, in essence, you were being targeted by ICE, clearly. It wasn’t just a question of another routine detention that they were—and deportation proceeding, that, in essence, that much—that many resources being dedicated to you clearly indicates that they were targeting you, most probably because of your activism.

RAVI RAGBIR: If you look at the way events unfolded, that’s the only conclusion you can make, because all of these resources, as you said, was dedicated to taking one person away, so you know it has to be—it has to be planned. And he said that in an affidavit, that they war-gamed this, war-gamed this whole scenario, this whole series of events. So, it wasn’t just that I was coming in for a check-in. It was a plan to target me and to remove me.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, it’s interesting, because New York says it’s a sanctuary city, that it won’t have the police working with ICE. And yet this is what you’re saying happened. And, Amy Gottlieb, you were allowed in the ambulance, right? Your husband had just fainted. But then they told you to step out. And when you got to the hospital—and you thought, because they were just going to race him out of the ambulance. But they moved on, with him in it and you outside.

AMY GOTTLIEB: That’s right, yeah. They first took us to a hospital in downtown Manhattan, closer to 26 Federal Plaza. And as I got out of the ambulance, I thought Ravi was going to be behind me, and the ambulance drove away. And we actually had no idea where he was for a couple of hours, probably 'til like around 2:00 or 3:00. We found out he had been taken to Bellevue. And that was only because we had people who were calling and calling and calling, trying to figure out what had happened. It wasn't as if ICE came and said, “Oh, we took your husband, who, by the way, needs medical attention, to Bellevue Hospital,” as one would think they would do with a spouse. So we found out much later.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Alina, what about the communications that you had with authorities in terms of legal representation for him, what they were telling you?

ALINA DAS: Well, throughout this process—and I’ve had the privilege of representing Ravi for a decade, since 2008—we have always been in constant communication with ICE, to be sure that we are complying with all of the requirements that they have put in his case. And it’s—in many years, it’s been a very good relationship, in the sense that they’ve recognized Ravi’s contributions to the community, his family ties, his incredible work with New Sanctuary Coalition. So, the change in events in the days leading up to the check-in and the check-in itself were incredibly disturbing, because there was never really an explanation for why they felt the need to detain him.

And that day, when they made that decision, and both Amy and I were pleading with the officer to explain why they needed to do something like this, and never receiving an explanation, and then having him whisked away from his community with no information, it essentially took a massive outpouring of community support and legal resources for us to be sitting here today. And I feel so grateful for the incredible community outcry that has really made this happen. And, of course, it very much worries me, because of the thousands of people who are in Ravi’s situation, who aren’t necessarily going to have those resources available to them. But that’s what Ravi has been fighting for for the past decade, and that’s what we hope to see.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You even had two city councilmembers, Ydanis Rodríguez and Jumaane Williams, arrested—right?—in a protest in support of him.

ALINA DAS: Absolutely. When the community heard what was happening, they had been engaged in a peaceful, prayerful vigil outside of 26 Federal Plaza, and they saw the ambulance leaving the building, without any sirens on or any indication that they were doing this as a medical emergency—we were told this was so they could clear him for detention—that 18 people were arrested, including two city councilmembers. And many more were standing in protest for what they were seeing.

AMY GOODMAN: In court on Monday, the law student who argued the case, one of the two, Jeremy Cutting, said ICE’s assistant field director, Scott Mechkowski, resented Ravi Ragbir’s activism. After Ravi’s check-in last March drew hundreds of people to protest, Mechkowski said, “What happened last time is not going to happen again,” and referred to the January 11th check-in as, quote, “D-Day.” The government’s lawyer, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Waterman, responded by saying there’s—no information suggested Ragbir was targeted because he was an activist.

Meanwhile, this is what Judge Forrest wrote in the first footnote to her order. She wrote, quote, “The Court also notes with grave concern the argument that petitioner has been targeted as a result of his speech and political advocacy on behalf of immigrants’ rights and social justice.” This is extremely significant. Can you talk about what happened with this ICE official, Mechkowski—is that how you pronounce his name?—on January 11th?

RAVI RAGBIR: I actually was sitting there, just hearing what he was saying. It wasn’t a discussion with me. It was a defensive—it was an aggression towards Amy and my lawyer, because even though he brought—he invited them into the space, it was a sort of an attack of: Why are they not allowing this to happen freely?

AMY GOODMAN: Amy Gottlieb, what did he say to you?

AMY GOTTLIEB: Oh, he just kept kind of repeating himself and getting really worked up, that this is the end of the road, that Ravi has had his chances, that they are going to enforce removal. And they just kept repeating it over and over. And there was no possibility of entering into a conversation with him at that moment at all. You know, and this is somebody I’ve known for many years because of my work. And I just—it was really astonishing just to feel so incredibly dehumanized in this space and to see Ravi faint, and we had to ask for water. You know, they didn’t like run and get water, that Ravi fainted, and we had to actually ask for it. So, it was extraordinarily dehumanizing and terrifying.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you learned that he was being transferred to Krome Detention Center in Florida, when there are plenty of detention centers that ICE has right in the metropolitan area they could have—they could have held him at, pending a resolution of whether he was going to be deported or not?

AMY GOTTLIEB: Not surprised, you know, because we knew that this was targeted and they were going to make it harder for all of us. They were going to make it hard for us to do the legal work. They were going to make it hard for us to visit. They were going to make it hard for him to be supported by his community. And fortunately, we were able to get an order from Judge Forrest early on that required ICE to bring him back to the New York area. So he’s been a little bit closer, but still, you know, Orange County jail is—it’s a jail. Right? So Ravi’s been locked up in a jail cell for over two weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, last night, when you were released, Ravi Ragbir, who released you?

RAVI RAGBIR: Scott Mechkowski. He was waiting there. I got to—they picked me up. I was told, when I called Amy and Alina, that the judge ordered me immediately released. I couldn’t believe it. In fact, the only words that came out of my mouth was “When? When? When? When?” And so, we thought they would have released me there, so the whole team went up. Then they said, no, they had to bring me down. And in bringing me down, they shackled me again to release me.

AMY GOODMAN: To New York City.

RAVI RAGBIR: To New York City. And they shackled my foot, my hands, my stomach. And I’m saying, “You know you’re releasing me, right? Why are you doing this?” So, we left there at 6:45, and we got to New York City at 8:00. And he was there waiting with the documents to order me—to institute a order of removal on February 10th. So I have to report back to them on Saturday, February 10th.

AMY GOODMAN: He then drove you to Judson Memorial Church?

RAVI RAGBIR: So, he was going to sit down, and he had me wait in his—he said, “Sit down in the car. Wait in the warm,” so I don’t—I’m not outside in the cold. And then, when he spoke to—

AMY GOODMAN: Were you still in shackles?

RAVI RAGBIR: No, no, no. This was his vehicle. And then he offered, “Oh, don’t worry to come down. I’ll just bring you up.” So, in a stunning move of humanity, the deputy director brought me to the front door of Judson Memorial Church.

AMY GOODMAN: And Judson Memorial Church is where the New Sanctuary Coalition is based. We’re talking to Ravi Ragbir; his wife, immigrant rights lawyer Amy Gottlieb; and his lawyer, Alina Das, who co-directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU School of Law. We’ll hear about that journey behind bars, when Ravi Ragbir was not accessible to the public, what this means, the people he saw behind bars, when we come back.

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Ravi Ragbir of the New Sanctuary Coalition: I Was Detained Because of Our Immigration Activism

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