NEW YORK (AP) — A federal judge who ordered a detained immigration rights activist facing deportation to be immediately released raised “grave concern” over the argument that he had been targeted because of his political activities, a concern also expressed by immigrants and their advocates over his and others’ cases.
During a hearing in Manhattan federal court on Monday over the detention of Ravi Ragbir, U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest asked a prosecutor what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had gotten out of detaining the activist. Ragbir has been fighting deportation for years following a wire fraud conviction and is executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, a coalition of 150 faith-based groups.
Ragbir was taken into custody on Jan. 11 when he checked in with immigration authorities and was told that he was being detained. In her ruling, Forrest called his treatment “unnecessarily cruel” and ordered that he be immediately let out of detention. She also refused a government request to halt her order for a possible appeal.
“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, regimes where those who have long lived in a country may be taken without notice from streets, home, and work. And sent away.”
In a footnote, Forrest wrote, “The Court also notes with grave concern the argument that petitioner has been targeted as a result of his speech and political advocacy on behalf of immigrants’ rights and social justice.”
Ragbir’s lawyer, Alina Das, said in court papers that Scott Mechkowski, deputy field office director at the ICE office where Ragbir was detained, told her on Jan. 8 that he felt “resentment” about Ragbir’s previously scheduled check-in on March 9.
She said Mechkowski told her that he had heard statements that Ragbir had made to the press and that he continues to see him at prayer vigils outside his Manhattan office. She said he also expressed anger that elected officials accompanied Ragbir to his check-ins, and he asked why lawyers bother to include so many letters from the community in efforts to keep Ragbir in the country.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Waterman labeled the claim that Ragbir was targeted as “pure speculation” and said the government had seen no evidence in support of that contention.
In a statement, ICE said it “does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make. Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate.”
Immigrants and their advocates have been claiming in recent weeks that ICE is targeting those who speak out against detention and deportation, pointing to Ragbir and his group’s co-founder, Jean Montrevil, who was deported to Haiti a couple of weeks ago.
They also cite cases like that of Eliseo Jurado, the detained husband of an immigrant woman who is an activist and has claimed sanctuary from deportation in a church, and Maru Mora Villalpando, an activist and citizen of Mexico living in Bellingham, Washington, who said she got a letter from ICE putting her in deportation proceedings despite her not having any kind of criminal record.
Ragbir’s wife, immigration attorney Amy Gottlieb, said she was moved “by the judge’s powerful language about what it means to live in a democracy.”
U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, a New York Democrat, said she hopes Ragbir will go to Washington for Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Gottlieb had already accepted Velazquez’s invitation.
The citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, a legal U.S. resident since 1994, fought deportation after his Sept. 12, 2001, conspiracy and wire fraud conviction for accepting fraudulent loan applications while working at a now-defunct loan company. Placed into removal proceedings, he was detained nearly two years before his 2008 release. The U.S. Supreme Court refused legal relief in October 2011. Subsequent court efforts failed. His attorneys have filed other appeals, which have still to be decided.