Is ICE Punishing Immigrant Rights Activists for Their Political Activity?

By Alfonso Serrano Feb 07, 2018

Is ICE Punishing Immigrant Rights Activists for Their Political Activity?

Ravi Ragbir has the freedom to say goodbye to his loved ones, and he enjoys the right to hug his wife and child before he is deported. So argued U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest last month when she ordered the immediate release of Ragbir, an immigrant rights activist facing deportation, from a correctional facility in Orange County New York. Ragbir’s "unnecessary detention" by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), added Forrest, also raised "grave concerns" that he was targeted by the agency for his for immigration advocacy—a practice she associated with America’s worst enemies.

This week the New Sanctuary Coalition, a New York City immigrant rights group where Ragbir serves as executive director, announced that his days to say farewell are numbered. Ragbir, the group said, is scheduled for deportation to his native Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday, February 10. His removal would cap a monthlong flurry of developments that have seen Ragbir detained after a routine check-in at ICE offices in New York, flown to a detention facility in Miami without notice to his wife or attorneys, returned to New York a week later, and released by Forrest’s order.

Tuesday (February 6) saw another incident in his case, in a week that promises several more. U.S. Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) introduced a private House measure that would provide Ragbir with a path to permanent legal status or the right to return to the U.S. should ICE deport him. Ragbir arrived in the U.S. in 1991 on a valid visa but had been granted temporary stays from deportation by previous administrations after he was convicted of wire fraud in 2001 and spent 2 1/2 years in prison. "This is an incredibly important act by Congresswoman Velázquez in light of what we have seen over the course of several weeks of immigrant leaders like Ravi being targeted," Alina Das, Ragbir’s lawyer, told reporters Tuesday during a conference call. "They’re being targeted because they’ve been brave and outspoken about the injustices in the immigration system."

Immigration advocates say the Trump administration has unleashed a wave of vengeance against activists vulnerable to deportation. Besides Ragbir, other cases include the initiation of deportation proceedings by ICE against Maru Mora Villapando, a Mexico native and prominent immigration activist in Washington state who has organized protests at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. After Mora led a hunger strike last year to protest living conditions at the center, Washington’s attorney general sued GEO Group, the private firm that runs the center, for violating the state’s minimum wage law.

On January 11 ICE detained Eliseo Jurado in Westminster, Colorado, citing 10-year-old driving infractions as reasons for his arrest. A native of Mexico, Jurado is the husband of Ingrid Encalada Latorre, a Peru native who is claiming sanctuary at a Boulder, Colorado church to avoid deportation. Last year ICE detained and threatened to immediately deport Daniela Vargas, a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Vargas was detained in Jackson, Mississippi, after speaking at a rally opposing the proposal of a state anti-immigration law. ICE released her after her attorneys challenged the decision. And early this year, ICE detained Jean Montrevil, Ragbir’s former colleague at New Sanctuary Coalition, two weeks before his scheduled check-in with the agency. After three decades in the U.S., he was deported to Haiti in mid-January.

"This does not only affect me and my family, but it also affects the larger community that has been part of this mobilization to end deportations," Ragbir told Colorlines. "This is psychological warfare they are waging against the community."

Although ICE admitted that Jurado came to their attention while they were investigating his spouse, the agency denied that it targeted him in retaliation for his wife’s sanctuary. Likewise, in a written statement to Colorlines, ICE categorized accusations that Ragbir was targeted for his advocacy as inaccurate. "ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security," said ICE Public Affairs Officer Rachael Yong Yow in an emailed statement. "The agency is deeply disturbed by the harmful personal attacks some Congress members have leveled against career law enforcement personnel, whose sworn duty is enforcing laws enacted by Congress itself."

Despite ICE denials, it’s difficult to overlook the agency’s focus on activists. Last month, the Trump administration charged eight activists with federal crimes for leaving water supplies for undocumented immigrants trekking through the Arizona desert. The charges came less than a week after the advocacy group No More Deaths, where the activists work, published a report accusing border patrol agents of sabotaging water containers left for immigrants. These incidents come amid a surge of interior deportations by the Trump administration that has seen federal agents threaten so-called sanctuary cities, target undocumented immigrants in courthouses, and instill fear across immigrant communities.

Ragbir, meanwhile, continues to fight his imminent deportation. On Friday he will appear before a federal district court in New Jersey, where his lawyers will ask that Ragbir receive a temporary stay from deportation until another court rules on challenges to his 2001 criminal conviction, which make him deportable. Ragbir has always maintained his innocence for accepting fraudulent loan applications, and his attorneys argue that there were fundamental errors in his case, including faulty jury instructions and deficient court-appointed counsel. "I’m an immigrant and I have not rights," said Ragbir. "But even though I have no rights, I’m not going to give in to this administration."