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

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Last month, Ravi 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 11, prompting a mass protest that ended with 18 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 would be brought back to detention in the New York City area. On Monday, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest said Ragbir’s detention was “unnecessarily cruel,” and ordered ICE to free him. But he still faces deportation. For more, we hear from Ravi Ragbir himself, executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Monday, a federal judge in New York City ordered the immediate release of immigrant rights leader Ravi Ragbir from ICE detention, calling his detention, quote, “unnecessarily cruel.” But Ragbir’s ordeal is not over. U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest wrote of the due process at stake in this case, quote, “The process that was due here is not process that will allow him to stay indefinitely—those processes have been had. The process that is due here is the allowance that he know and understand that the time has come, that he must organize his own affairs, and that he must do so by a date certain. That is what is due. That is the process required after a life living among us.”

AMY GOODMAN: Ravi Ragbir is the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition. He’s one of a handful of high-profile immigrant rights leaders who have been targeted by the Trump administration. Ravi was released last night, joining us in our New York studio of Democracy Now! Also with us, his wife Amy Gottlieb, also an immigrant rights attorney, and his own attorney, Alina Das, who co-directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU School of Law.

So, Alina Das, if you can talk about the significance of what has taken place? I mean, this was a stunning rebuke of the Trump administration that Judge Forrest handed down yesterday. You came outside the courthouse. You know, we couldn’t even have phones in the courtroom, record anything, though the judge’s decision was given out after she read it. And you talked about the significance of this case around the country, as Amy is about to get on a train to be a guest at the State of the Union address of President Trump—not invited by President Trump, but by Congressmember Nydia Velázquez.

ALINA DAS: Well, absolutely. We were so heartened to get the judge’s decision ordering immediate release, and even more so the basis of the decision, recognizing the cruelty of detention. And at the end of the day, I think that’s the principle that will stand for all of these other cases that we’re seeing, because what she recognized is that when you detain someone who isn’t a flight risk or a danger, it becomes arbitrary.

And that’s what happened here. ICE has never claimed that Ravi is a danger to the community. On the contrary, they’ve, in the past, recognized his contributions. Yet, the only explanation that the attorney was able to provide at the hearing yesterday for why they did this was that it was in their operational decision-making process. And when you hear words like that, which are empty, it just shows how far we’ve come that detention has become so normalized, that we think it’s perfectly fine to lock someone up, put them in shackles, take them to a jail, away from their families, just in order to enforce what essentially is a civil administrative order.

Now, we do intend to challenge that order, and we have other legal cases that are pending for Ravi. So, our goal is to keep him here. But recognizing, as the court did, that detention itself was cruel and inhumane, I think, will be helpful to many other people who face this scenario.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Amy, in terms of the—the fight is going to continue, clearly, because the judge did recognize that ICE had the legal right to deport your husband, but it was a question of the way that they detained him in the process. Now that you’re facing a new date, what do you see, especially in the context where, as we’re seeing, both President Trump and the Democrats are inviting—Nydia Velázquez inviting you—immigrant advocates and people who, according to Trump, have been victimized by crime of undocumented immigrants, are all going to be center stage this evening at the State of the Union—in this context, the continuing battle over your husband’s ability to stay in the country?

AMY GOTTLIEB: Yeah, it’s terrifying. But, you know, to see the surge of support we have, it’s so rewarding, and it gives me strength, and it gives me hope. And, you know, we’ve been in this struggle—we’ve been married, you know, almost eight years. We have been together for a long time. We have learned to walk through this one day at a time. And right now it feels like we have a short period of time until the next stay of deportation expires. But we have—I have to hold on to my faith that the system is going to work. It was—my faith was shattered when Ravi was in detention. It was—

AMY GOODMAN: You flew down to Florida. You went up to Orange County.

AMY GOTTLIEB: Yeah, three times to Orange County jail to see my husband in a bright yellow jumpsuit for one hour, and spent a couple hundred dollars on phone calls, for us to be able to talk.

But yeah, so, you know, right now it feels like we’ve got this surge of community support. We have, you know, members of Congress who are looking out for us. We have the legal team that we have. You know, and I feel so grateful for all of that. And I’m just going to have to keep doing it one day at a time and believing in my—deep down in my heart and my soul that we are going to find a way through this. And it will not be easy, we realize that. But we know that, you know, we’re extraordinarily lucky. And we talk all the time and think all the time about people in this situation who are not supported by the lawyers that we have, by the community that we have, by people who are willing to lie down and, you know, be arrested on our behalf. That’s an extraordinary situation that we live, and we recognize that. And we want to see that for everybody. But it’s scary.

RAVI RAGBIR: So, you know, coming back to the judge’s decision about it’s a—we are under the guise that—the fiction of that this law makes it right. So, that’s the problem with this law—law makes it right to do this, not only to myself. You know, it’s beyond me. It’s about the hundreds of thousands that are facing this. When I was in Krome, you felt the hopelessness that people have, because they are terrified of what has happened. Everything is stripped out from—stripped out from them. When I moved to Orange County—when they moved me—sorry, I didn’t move, they moved me to Orange County—it’s the same thing. People are not—are so destroyed. Their spirits are broken. And when you have hundreds of millions of people in this state, there’s something wrong. And that law, that she rightly targeted or said that it is fiction, makes this all possible.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What was the interaction you had with some of the guards who were looking over you? Were they aware that you were an immigrant rights activist? And did they—did you have conversations with them about the situation at all?

RAVI RAGBIR: Well, not only the guards, but the ICE officers themselves. So, one ICE officer came up to me and, when they were bringing me up, stuck his hand in his pocket and, towering over me, “So, I heard you are an immigrant rights advocate, activist. What do you do?” And he started talking. And then he came, and he actually sat down next to me, put his foot on the chair and then started talking. In the end, I said, “You know, everything that you have said, I would invite you to come and work for us,” because he was making his own arguments against what is happening and how this law itself is wrong. They recognize that. But that’s their job. I have had—I’ve had these conversations with them throughout the process, going down to Krome, sitting down with them and hearing them say that what was happening to me was wrong. And they recognize that.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Alina Das about this ongoing case, and it’s one of the issues the judge raised yesterday. She said—you have a court case—what?—February 9th. So, why, she said to the lawyers representing the Trump administration and ICE, is he going to be detained until then? Separating detention from deportation—if he’s not a flight risk, if there’s not any danger to the community, why is he being held? Now, can you talk about this case? Ravi has been in this country for over a quarter of a century.

ALINA DAS: Well, absolutely. So, Ravi has faced many injustices in the legal system. We have always maintained that there have been fundamental errors in the original conviction that is leading to this deportation.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what you mean by that original conviction.

ALINA DAS: Sure. So, Ravi, like many individuals, is actually—came to the U.S. and had a lawful permanent residency. He has status. Yet, because of a criminal conviction that he received in 2001, he is facing this double punishment of—

AMY GOODMAN: And this is for wire fraud.

ALINA DAS: This is for wire fraud. That was a fraud conviction that we believe was—involved several errors, in terms of the jury instructions, in terms of sentencing, that laws have come to light that have made it clear that he was convicted for conduct that wasn’t actually criminal. And so, those are the challenges that we’ve been pursuing for a number of years, while all of this has been going on. Under prior administrations, we had been told by ICE that they recognize that, you know, he had a due process interest in seeing his day in court on those claims. Nothing about that has changed. Those were all pending before January 11th. Yet we walked in that day, and suddenly we got this decision to deport him. And I think that’s the part of this that is so disturbing, is that the only thing that has really changed in Ravi’s case since 2008 is the fact that his prominence as an immigrant rights activist has only increased and that it’s come into direct conflict with the current administration.

And I agree with Ravi’s comments that it’s not about one man or the agency of ICE. ICE issued a statement, I think, in response to the judge’s order, seeming to suggest that she was somehow insulting ICE officers. But the fact of the matter is, many of the ICE officers that we’ve spoken to, even over the last couple of weeks, have expressed concern about the direction that ICE is moving in. We recognize the humanity of everyone who is working or caught up in this system, and we don’t believe that it’s just one person or one policy. It is a stark change in the direction this country is moving in, and I think that’s why the work that Ravi does as an activist is so important. So, we will continue to fight to make sure that he isn’t deported and that the injustices in both his conviction as well as his removal order are addressed by the courts of law.

AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering if you can explain the accompaniment process that you have really refined, that seemed to enrage ICE officials. When we were there last March downtown, you had a Jericho walk around 26 Federal Plaza, where immigrants have to go inside, where you were checking in. This was last March. You have Congress—you have legislators. You have city councilmembers. And this is what so enraged Mechkowski, when he talked about this as “D-Day” right now. Talk about accompaniment and what it means. How many people came up with you, for example, January 11th, when you went to your check-in?

RAVI RAGBIR: So, the accompaniment is simple. It’s partnering U.S. citizens, whom ICE has no jurisdiction over, with noncitizens who are facing a terrible process, as we talked about, facing deportation and exile from their family permanently. Right? That’s it, in its simplicity.

But there are rules that we—part of the training is about the rules that we engage, that we teach people. One is, don’t judge anyone. So, if people have criminal convictions, it doesn’t matter. New Sanctuary doesn’t believe that—no one should be deported, because this law itself is a fiction—sorry, racist. Two, that you should respect people. Number three, do no harm.

So, everything that we have—how we have trained people is that I don’t want you to react to the officers and react to the policy, but respond and learn how that—teaching them that response has made them very effective, because they are not intimidated by the process. They are not intimidated by ICE officers. They are not intimidated, because they know they are coming at it from a very nonviolent nonconfrontation. In fact, we say, you know you’re doing the accompaniment wrong is if you’re speaking. So, my goal in training them is to learn how to shut up.

And that’s the whole concept of the accompaniment program. And it has become very effective in the courts as much as in the accompaniment to check-ins. And they’ve been trying to bar us, bar the accompaniment, from the check-in on many, many occasions. And they still—we’re still going to—we’re planning to change that and continue to accompany people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Amy, at the State of the Union this evening, what are you hoping to have happen there? And talk about the congresswoman, Nydia Velázquez, inviting you, when you heard she wanted you to be there.

AMY GOTTLIEB: Oh, goodness. I was pretty stunned to get the invitation. But I was impressed. It felt to me like a bold move on her part. And I’ve since heard of others who’ve been invited by their members of Congress, others in similar situations. It was a bold move to, you know, bring somebody with her as her guest who represents something that the Trump administration is fighting so hard. And that feels very affirming and positive and supportive to me.

You know, I think that being down there, we’ll be doing some press. I, hopefully, will meet some other members of Congress and be able to talk about the issues, be able to talk about the impact of the 1996 immigration laws, which is what has caused Ravi to be in this situation in the first place, and really, hopefully, get an ear of some people before the actual address.

The address itself, I will be doing some deep-breathing exercises and, you know, trying to listen, as best I can, and to come out of there feeling somehow at peace with myself.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And before Congress actually has to tackle legislation that—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —the president has been requesting, in the terms of the DREAMers and—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —what he calls chain migration.

AMY GOTTLIEB: Right. It will be challenging for me to listen to his positions on immigration. I know that for sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, he’s going to be bringing, I believe, a family member from Long Island who lost someone because they were murdered by an undocumented immigrant. The others who are going to be coming, Cesar Espinosa, who is a DREAMer from Houston, Texas, will be among those who are plus-ones, who are guests of congressmembers; as well, Maru Mora Villalpando will be coming from Washington state—all invited as legislative guests for this evening.

The significance right now—do you feel that immigrant rights leaders are being targeted? I just came from Colorado, where I interviewed a mother, a Mexican mother, who had been in this country for well over two decades, named Sandra Lopez, mother of three. Her eldest kid is in college, and she has two little ones. She is in sanctuary in the Unitarian parsonage in Carbondale, Colorado, right next to Aspen, fearful that she, too, could be deported. And we’re seeing this. There are four people in Colorado right now. Your organization, Ravi, just put out a report saying more people are in sanctuary in this country, taking refuge in churches, than we have ever seen. Alina?

ALINA DAS: Well, it’s hard—

AMY GOODMAN: Since the ’80s.

ALINA DAS: Yeah, it’s hard to ignore the pattern that’s been emerging over the last several weeks, when you look at not only Ravi’s case, but the case of Jean Montrevil and others, who have been—

AMY GOODMAN: Who was just deported to Haiti.

ALINA DAS: Who was just deported to Haiti.

AMY GOODMAN: As President Trump made those “s—hole” comments about Haiti.

ALINA DAS: Exactly. And you see this kind of—this targeting of people who have been outspoken about the need for justice in our immigration system, people who have affiliated themselves with the sanctuary movement. It’s hard to believe that there isn’t active targeting going on, because these are the same individuals who, for years, have been living with us, who have often been engaged in open communication with ICE to try and fix policies at a local and national level, and now they start to be targeted, with no explanation, no kind of judgment as to what has changed that made them targets, other than the fact that they have been effective in their work fighting against the Trump administration. And I think that is something that should disturb every American.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll continue to follow your case. Just one last quick question, Ravi: How are you holding up? One date after another for check-in, you go to jail, you’re shackled, you’re released, you go back.

RAVI RAGBIR: I, as Amy said, just take it one day at a time. You just have to know—I have to put one foot in front of the other and just hold onto that emotional turmoil that is churning within me, and lock it away. I had a—I had Dr. Allen Keller come up to visit me on Sunday night. And I’m saying, you know, “You’re not going to find any trauma.” But at the end of the meeting, it was evident that there was a lot locked up.

What I did do when I was detained is I realized that I could use this opportunity to help others in detention, so I was connecting them to the organizations, the lawyers, the—you know, because that’s where we’ve always wanted to be, and I’m in there.

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t think they’re going to detain you anymore.

RAVI RAGBIR: That will be a challenge. I was actually hoping they would move me around, so I could connect to more people.

AMY GOODMAN: And will you continue organizing until February 9th, when you have to show up again?

RAVI RAGBIR: Absolutely. There is no other choice. Until we change this law, we have to. Until we change the premise of this hate that is permeating our country, we have to continue to organize.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ravi Ragbir, we want to thank you for being with us, for coming here after being released just last night. Amy Gottlieb, for joining us, Ravi’s wife, immigrant rights attorney, will be attending the State of the Union address tonight as a guest of Congressmember Velázquez. And Alina Das co-directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU School of Law.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, in the last few days, two men, taking their kids to school, were taken by ICE. A third went into sanctuary in New Jersey as all of this was happening. We’re going to speak with his pastor. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Logic performing the song “1-800-273-8255” at the Grammys Sunday night. The phone number of the title is for the National Suicide Prevention hotline.

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