A prominent New York City immigrant-rights activist recently released from custody by immigration authorities alleges in a lawsuit filed on Thursday that he and other activists are being targeted for deportation because of their political speech.
In a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, activist Ravi Ragbir, who is subject to an order for deportation because of a 17-year-old wire fraud conviction, and five immigrant-rights groups allege that their advocacy has made them subject to harassment, surveillance and arrests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The organizations named as plaintiffs in the suit are the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, for which Ragbir serves as executive director; CASA de Maryland, the Detention Watch Network, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyer’s Guild and the New York Immigration Coalition.
Ragbir was taken into custody on Jan. 11 during a routine check-in with ICE, but his suit states that New Sanctuary Coalition co-founder Jean Montrevil, a Haitian immigrant who is a green-card holder and who faced deportation on the basis of a decades-old criminal conviction of cocaine possession, was deported to Haiti just a few days prior.
Ragbir, who immigrated to the U.S. from Trinidad and Tobago, has been under an order of deportation since 2006, after serving prison time for the 2001 criminal conviction and being held in immigration detention.
From 2011 to 2016, Ragbir was granted four stays of removal. He filed for a fifth in November, which is pending.
According to the suit, Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz, another co-founder of the coalition, alleges that Scott Mechkowski, deputy director of ICE’s New York field office, told him during a meeting about Montrevil’s case that Ragbir and Montrevil were the office’s two “highest profile” cases, and described Ragbir’s upcoming check-in as “D-Day.”
Mechkowski also said that the relatively low-key manner of Montrevil’s detention was intentional, so that the agency could avoid dealing with protests and “wailing kids and wailing clergy.”
“That can’t happen this time around,” Mechkowski said, according to Ruiz and other clergy members present for the meeting. They say that the agent also denied conducting surveillance on Ragbir, adding that he knows where Ragbir lives and that he “could have taken him” himself.
On Jan. 29, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest issued a sharply worded ruling ordering Ragbir’s immediate release from custody and saying his detention amounted to “unnecessary cruelty.”
Forrest also addressed in her ruling allegations that ICE is targeting immigrant advocates on the basis of their political speech, saying that the allegations give her “grave concern.”
The plaintiffs are represented by Alina Das, Ragbir’s longtime lawyer and a New York University School of Law professor, and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer attorneys R. Stanton Jones, Sally Pei, William Perdue, John Freedman, Daniel Jacobson, Stephen Wirth, Andrew Tutt, Anthony Boccanfuso, Ada Anon and Emily Dillingham.
“If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t silence immigrant-rights activists like Mr. Ragbir by deporting them,” Jones said in a statement issued by the Immigrant Defense Project. “We look forward to presenting these grave constitutional claims to the court.”
In a statement forwarded by an ICE spokeswoman, Matthew Albence, the agency’s executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations, denied that ICE arrests immigrants based on their political advocacy or in retaliation for critical statements.
“Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate,” Albence said. “ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.”
Albence added that the agency would no longer exempt classes of “removable aliens” from deportation and noted that, of the 143,470 arrests the agency logged in its 2017 fiscal year, 73 percent had criminal convictions and 15 percent had pending criminal matters.
Ragbir is fighting to vacate his criminal conviction in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, arguing that he received ineffective assistance of counsel and that the jury in his trial was improperly instructed.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken of the Southern District of New York approved a stipulation signed by Ragbir’s attorneys and the Southern District U.S. Attorney’s Office granting Ragbir a temporary stay of deportation.