Disappeared in America

January 31, 2018 Will Coley

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

“It ought not to be — and it has never before been — that those who have lived without incident in this country for years are subjected to treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust…, We are not that country; and woe be the day that we become that country under a fiction that laws allow it.” - Judge Katherine B. Forrest, of the United States District Court of the Southern District of New York

On Jan. 29, I read these words on the steps of the courthouse where U.S. District Court Judge Katherine B. Forrest ordered that my friend and colleague, Ravi Ragbir, be released from immigration detention immediately. I later heard that when she read the statement in court, people cried and cheered.

A photo of immigration activists Ravi Ragbir and Amy Gottlieb

It was the latest development in a tumultuous three weeks for Ravi, his family, friends, and fellow immigration activists. On Jan. 11, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “disappeared” Ravi, a community leader and activist in New York City. For nearly 24 hours, we didn’t know where he was. All we knew was that ICE wanted to deport him to Trinidad – a place that hasn’t been his home for 20 years -- and separate him from his wife and daughter, who are U.S. citizens.

This happened during a routine check-in with ICE, a condition of his stay of deportation. Outside, there were 200 supporters who had gathered in a peaceful vigil lead by religious leaders. The outpouring of support was a testament to Ravi’s leadership and activism on behalf of immigrants across the country. Ravi is the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, a group of faith communities opposed to deportation, and a respected leader in the New York immigrant rights community.

Ravi’s arrest was not an isolated incident. It was part of a national sweep of ICE raids targeting immigrant rights advocates who have been calling for just and humane immigration reform. Ravi is facing deportation for a non-violent conviction he committed 16 years ago and served time for,  but due to our draconian immigration laws, he now faces permanent exile. His lawyers have been pursuing legal avenues to prevent his deportation. Some of these actions were still pending when ICE arrested him on Jan. 11.

Due process and fair treatment in the justice system are basic human rights, and respecting them is a crucial part of who we are as a nation.

This is what’s so outrageous about Ravi’s story: ICE had no reason to detain him other than to silence a prominent critic of our unworkable immigration system.  Ravi’s experience of being unnecessarily detained without the opportunity to say goodbye vividly illustrates the injustice of current immigration policies. In the words of Judge Forrest, “Taking such a man, and there are many such men and women like him, and subjecting him to what is rightfully understood as no different or better than penal detention, is certainly cruel. The Constitution commands better.”

Over the past 20 years, more than 4.5 million people have been deported from the United States, almost eight times more than in the previous 20 years. In 1996, detention and deportation became mandatory for a wide range of past criminal offenses, and immigrants were stripped of many basic rights, including the right to a fair day in court. (Read more about the 1996 laws here.) A national climate of fear, coupled with a “law and order” narrative, have led to the massive diversion of federal funding to police, and have created the world’s largest immigration detention and deportation system.

President Donald Trump has heightened the threat to human rights and fairness by vastly expanding the immigration police force and further limiting the due process rights of immigrants. His administration has effectively named all immigrants as a threat worthy of deportation. And in the rush to remove immigrants from the country, ICE is denying people like Ravi the legal rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Due process and fair treatment in the justice system are basic human rights, and respecting them is a crucial part of who we are as a nation. If anyone, a citizen or noncitizen, is denied that basic human right, we are all at risk. That’s what Judge Forrest saw in Ravi’s case.

We’re also a nation that supports the unity of families and, fortunately, Judge Forrest recognized this as well: Per her ruling on Jan. 29, Ravi was released from immigration detention and has returned to his family and friends. He still faces deportation, but his legal team is working to overturn the original conviction that launched this 16-year nightmare.

Ravi is still speaking out and taking action. As he did each Thursday before his arrest, Ravi joins faith leaders and community members in a “Jericho Walk” on Feb. 1 around 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan, the federal building where he was arrested. The silent vigil circles the building seven times, like the Bible story in which Israelites circled the city of Jericho to make the walls fall down. For participants, the walk symbolizes the need for a new immigration system that respects family unity and due process. If you’re in the New York area, you’re welcome to join the walk and other New Sanctuary projects, such as accompanying immigrants to court.

You can also protest immigration detention by joining a new campaign with Detention Watch Network: #ICEonTrial. Network members and allies will hold ICE accountable for its culture of secrecy and systemic abuse through coordinated People's Tribunals across the country.