Ravi Ragbir, a leader in New York’s immigrant-rights community for over a decade, walked into 26 Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan on Thursday morning knowing that it might be his last act as a free man in the United States.
Ragbir, who was born in Trinidad, has lived in this country for a quarter-century and has a wife and children here. He was a legal permanent resident when he was convicted of wire fraud in 2001 for his low-level role in a mortgage business that came under criminal investigation. Ragbir spent three years under house arrest and served a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence, but upon its conclusion he was ordered deported. He appealed the decision, setting off years of legal proceedings during which he was incarcerated in New Jersey, then Alabama, across the country from his family. When his legal team finally won his release pending the outcome of this ongoing appeal, Ragbir threw himself into the work of educating and organizing New York immigrants living under the threat of deportation.
The work made Ragbir well-known among New York immigrant advocates, and that acclaim — along with an Obama-administration policy that made nonviolent felons a low priority for deportation — secured him a series of deferrals. Under Trump, however, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been issued a much wider brief, making anyone who has so much as committed an act for which one could be arrested susceptible to deportation. Being a high-profile face of immigrant rights may have helped his status under Obama, but now Ragbir faced the very real possibility that it might hurt him. When he walked in to his mandated ICE check-in that morning, he might not walk out.
He wouldn’t be going in quietly, though. Hundreds of supporters gathered in Foley Square early Thursday across the street from the federal building where Ragbir would check in. Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer, Comptroller Scott Stringer, City Council members, and others spoke glowingly to the crowd about Ragbir’s contributions to the city and decried the deportation mechanism that threatened to remove him.
When the appointed hour came, Ragbir began to move through the crowd, beginning a peculiar and affecting procession through the park and across the street. A tight knot of friends and clergy surrounded him, singing a dirgeful version of “We Shall Overcome.” Their progress was slowed by thronging TV crews and photojournalists jostling for the shot of the man’s last free moments in America, a long line of supporters, some in white robes, trailing behind. Passersby stopped and stared. The whole thing had the air of a highly mediated procession to Calvary. At the entrance to the federal building, armed guards stopped the procession. Ragbir would not be allowed inside until the press left. The photojournalists were resistant to being shooed away. Ragbir’s legal team, worried that he would be made late to his mandated check-in, pleaded with them to step back to the street. Finally, after nearly a quarter of an hour, Ragbir and his team — his wife, his lawyers, a few of his closest supporters, and a contingent of councilmembers and an assemblyman — were allowed to enter the building.
The hundreds of supporters waiting outside began circling the building, pausing at each full cycle to recite what has become known within the Sanctuary movement as the Jericho Prayer.
On the ninth floor, Ragbir and his team were immediately confronted with an acute and personal example of the anxiety and suffering that pervades the ICE check-in waiting room. Ramesh Palaniandi, a friend of Ragbir’s and a fellow participant in the New Sanctuary movement, also had a mandatory check-in that morning. As his wife, Janice Hoseine, tearfully explained to Ragbir and the rest, she had fretted anxiously in that room, waiting for Palianandi to finish his meeting, only to be told that he would not be coming back out. ICE was holding him with the intention of deporting him back to Guyana.
Although the ICE facilities at Federal Plaza are mere blocks from City Hall and the machinery of deportation has been grinding since long before Trump’s election, the elected officials accompanying Ragbir had never seen it before — and seemed sincerely rattled by what they were witnessing. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito had tears streaming down her face as she spoke in Spanish with mothers and children waiting for their own appointments, without lawyers or support.
Finally, Ragbir was called in to his meeting. He embraced his wife and, accompanied by his lawyer, disappeared behind a door. Long minutes passed. On the television in the waiting room, CNN played coverage of congressional healthcare debates. On the wall beneath the TV, a sign bearing the seal of the Department of Homeland Security bore the words “With honor and integrity we will safeguard the American people, our homeland, and our values.”
After fifteen minutes or so, Ragbir was back out again. As his wife tearfully embraced him, his lawyer, Alina Das, explained to his friends and the elected officials what had happened in the meeting. Ragbir hadn’t been taken in, but the news wasn’t good, either. ICE was putting him on a very short cycle — he would be required to check in all over again in one month. More alarming, ICE was directing him to bring back proof that he’d started the process of applying for a Trinidadian passport. Confirming that an immigrant’s country of origin will receive him is a necessary step in the deportation process. Immigration officials were incrementally turning up the heat.
The conference was cut short when a man with an official tone and close-cropped hair ordered the group to clear the hallway immediately. City Councilmember Jumaane Williams observed that the group wasn’t blocking the hallway and asked the man to identify himself. The man refused, but insisted that Ragbir, his friends, and the elected officials leave the hallway. For a moment the two men squared off, eye to eye. The unnamed federal official eventually stepped away, and Ragbir’s entourage boarded elevators to descend.
“What I saw up there was crazy,” Williams would go on to say. “It’s the most un-American thing I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s one thing to hear about people with no legal representation. It is another thing to see a roomful of terrified people facing deportation with no legal representation at all. I’ve seen grandmothers in there who’ve been here 45 years, grandmothers in [electronic] bracelets, single parents with their children, waiting to find out if they’re going to be deported.
“Someone needs to explain why, if they’re facing deportation, there’s no legal representation. I’m calling on the mayor, I’m calling on the governor, I’m calling on all elected officials to take time out of their day, at some point, to come and see what’s going on here.”
“You would think that I would be happy coming back out, and I am happy to be back here with my family,” Ragbir told the crowd. “But I have to go through this again — ” He broke off and stood silent for a moment. “How do I have this knife, this guillotine over my neck and be able to function?” he began again. “They asked me for a passport. When they ask for that, it usually means one thing. They say no, everything stays the same, but if everything stays the same, I shouldn’t be checking in next month. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I am a realist.”
The rally began to dissipate, with a collective promise to return in a month for Ragbir’s next check-in.
That night, a much smaller group of people gathered outside the other ICE office, on Varick and Houston streets, where Palaniandi, Ragbir’s friend who had been taken into custody that morning, was now being held.
Palaniandi came to the States from Guyana with a green card in 1992. He was convicted of burglary and did a short prison stint, getting out in 2007. Eight years later, he thought he was in the clear, his wife says. He worked for a septic and sewer company and often received clearance to work in federal buildings. But in 2015, he was picked up by ICE. He was ultimately released, but his periodic check-ins with the agency kept a perpetual shadow over his head ever since.
After circling the building once with candles, the group bowed their heads and laid their hands on the walls of the building, as Juan Carlos Ruiz, a Lutheran minister at Saint Peter’s Church who helped found the New Sanctuary Coalition, led them in prayer.
“We pray that those who are in power may listen to the cries, may see the injustice that is being perpetrated against their brothers and sisters. May they soften their hearts so that the law that keeps our people in chains may be broken. We pray for the right to remain together with our families, with our communities.”
The next morning, Palaniandi had been transferred to Bergen County Jail in New Jersey. His family is still gathering letters of support for a last-minute pardon from the governor.