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Prominent immigrant rights leader Ravi Ragbir was detained Thursday morning at a routine check-in with ICE in Manhattan, sparking clashes between protesters and police at demonstrations demanding his release.
Before Ragbir’s scheduled check-in, hundreds of his supporters gathered outside of 26 Federal Plaza, which houses ICE’s New York City headquarters. They circled the building in a silent Jericho Walk, wearing sanctuary buttons and holding signs reading “No borders, no walls” and “No one is illegal.”
Upon learning that he wouldn’t be allowed to return home to Brooklyn with his wife and that he faced imminent deportation to Trinidad, Ragbir fainted, according to his lawyer, Alina Das, who was present at the check-in. Outside, when demonstrators got the news via text message, they broke their silence, shouting, “Ravi, we love you.”
Ragbir, the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) of NYC, was handcuffed and taken from Federal Plaza in an ambulance. Demonstrators tried to block its path, flooding the streets, chanting Ragbir’s name, and singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round.”
The scene turned chaotic when NYPD officers threw several demonstrators to the ground and cuffed them, prompting jeers of “Shame, shame.” Eighteen people were arrested and taken into custody, including Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who, on Twitter, accused the NYPD of putting him in a chokehold, and Councilmember Jumaane Williams, who was captured on video being cuffed against the hood of a car.
“We want Ravi with us,” shouted Father Juan Carlos Luis, an NSC faith leader, while zip-tied behind an NYPD van. “He is family. He needs to be free.”
Ragbir’s arrest comes one week after ICE detained another prominent immigrant rights leader, NSC co-founder Jean Montrevil. On January 3, four ICE vans picked up Montrevil outside his home in Far Rockaway, then took him to Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark.
The arrest came as a shock to Montrevil, a transportation company owner who legally immigrated to the United States from Haiti in 1986. Montrevil has a pending motion with the Board of Immigration Appeals over a 1990 conviction on drug charges, and had been scheduled for a routine ICE check-in on January 16.
“At Jean’s last check-in, in April, the ICE officer promised they wouldn’t do anything to him until his case was heard,” Janay Cauthen, Jean’s ex-wife and the mother of his four children, told the Voice. “His case still hasn’t been heard.”
On January 5, hours after the NSC staged a rally for Montrevil’s release, at which his young daughter cried while describing Christmas with her dad, Montrevil was flown to a detention center in Miami. He now faces deportation to Haiti.
“I’m pissed the hell off right now,” Cauthen said on Thursday. “My son is fourteen years old. You know what he spent his Sunday doing? Creating a petition for his father’s release. He was supposed to spend Sunday playing video games.”
For more than a decade, Ragbir and Montrevil have served as national leaders of immigrant rights advocacy. Many saw them as living proof of an oft-repeated NSC catchphrase: “You are your own greatest defender.”
Montrevil, now 49, has been caught at the intersection of the war on drugs and the war on immigration since he was a teenager. One of fourteen siblings, Montrevil lost his mom at age nine, and his father “left him to fend for himself when they got to the States,” Cauthen said.
As a legal U.S. resident in 1990, he was convicted of selling cocaine, and began serving an eleven-year prison sentence. In 1996, a law passed that made noncitizens convicted of felonies subject to deportation. Montrevil was ordered deported by an immigration judge while still in prison, but he was granted a stay of removal.
“Jean had a hard way,” Cauthen told the Voice. “He had to sell drugs to make his way. He did his time for that. They’re still trying to punish him for a mistake he made as a teenager. He hasn’t been in trouble with the law in over thirty years.”
Ragbir, 53, immigrated to the United States from Trinidad and became a green card holder in 1994. In 2001, after the mortgage company that he worked for was investigated for fraudulent loan applications, he was convicted of conspiracy to commit wire fraud — a conviction he’s since sought to vacate, alleging errors in his trial. In 2006, after three years of house arrest and thirty months in federal prison, away from his daughter and his wife, a U.S. citizen, he was ordered deported by an immigration judge — without a hearing. He’s fought the deportation order ever since.
After being released from prison, both Ragbir and Montrevil became part of a supervised program for deportable immigrants, with strict conditions like a 10 p.m. curfew. They have regularly checked in with ICE, fighting for their own cases and those of fellow immigrants. At their check-ins during the Obama administration, both Ragbir and Montrevil were consistently granted periodic stays of removal, despite a few close calls. To fellow immigrants with criminal convictions, their stories of reform, resilience, and community leadership seemed to suggest that second chances were possible here.
“Jean and Ravi pose no threat to anything except white supremacy,” New York state senator Gustavo Rivera told the Voice.
Now, advocates see the pair’s pending deportations as calculated challenges by the Trump administration, meant to intimidate those who dare obstruct the White House’s anti-immigration agenda.
“This is a clear sign that this administration is targeting folks who are leading efforts to resist attacks on immigrant communities,” Senator Rivera said.
“If other immigrants see [Jean and Ravi] were deported, they’ll obviously think, ‘Well, then I could be, too,’ ” said Reverend Donna Schaper, senior minister of Judson Memorial Church and an NSC co-founder.
Concerned that ICE is targeting New York’s sanctuary movement, local activists are now questioning how to proceed with their work to support undocumented New Yorkers.
“All bets are off, and we have no idea what the most effective tactics moving forward will be,” said Reverend Micah Bucey, a minister at Judson Memorial Church, where the NSC is headquartered.
Each week, hundreds of undocumented people come through Judson, seeking help with their cases at pro se legal clinics. Recently, rumors have circulated about ICE vans waiting outside the church. Many immigrants have grown afraid to walk from the nearest subway station without being accompanied by a New Sanctuary volunteer, fearing they’ll be detained and no one will notice.
“I’m afraid we are going to have to increase security,” Reverend Schaper told the Voice. “I hope that the immigrants with whom we’ve built bonds of trust will not mistrust us because of these awful events.”
At 5 p.m. on Thursday, demonstrators holding “Free Ravi” signs gathered for a vigil outside Varick Street Immigration Court. By then, the hashtag #IStandWithRavi had gone viral, and an online petition for Jean Montrevil’s release had gathered more than 6,500 signatures.
At that point, nobody knew where Ragbir was — in a hospital, in a local detention center, or en route to Miami, where Montrevil still waits.
“This is an international disgrace,” New York City comptroller Scott Stringer told the crowd. “This is the definition of shitty.”
Amy Gottlieb, Ragbir’s wife and an immigrant rights lawyer, joined scores of demonstrators who pressed their hands up against the court building, calling out the names of dozens of people currently held in detention centers.
“I still want to believe that this is a country that treats people with dignity, despite all evidence to the contrary,” Gottlieb said. “We’re going to get Ravi out. This surge of community support is going to keep us moving forward.”
Upon his detention, Ragbir’s attorneys filed a lawsuit challenging ICE’s actions in federal court, and a hearing is now scheduled for January 29 to evaluate the legality of ICE’s actions. The federal court issued a temporary stay of removal and a temporary order preventing Ragbir’s transfer away from the New York region. But as of this morning, ICE’s detainee locator system listed Ragbir as being detained at Krome Detention Center in Florida.
“It’s a major blow,” said Bucey, freshly released from police custody after being arrested during Thursday’s protests. “But even if ICE thinks they’ve cut off a limb, they have no idea what’s going to grow in its place.”