New York — When Ravi Ragbir walked into 26 Federal Plaza on Thursday, he did not know whether or not he would be leaving in handcuffs. The prominent immigrant rights activist and leader of the New Sanctuary Coalition has a U.S.-born daughter, is married to a U.S. citizen and has lived in the United States for twenty-seven years. But a fifteen-year-old wire fraud conviction means his immigration status is in limbo, even more so now that Donald Trump is president.
Hundreds of people gathered across from the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services building on Thursday morning in a show of support for Ragbir. Many, fearing the worst, were there to bid him a tearful goodbye. Yet after roughly an hour inside Ragbir emerged following a sit-down meeting with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer.
Addressing his supporters — including City Councilmembers Jumaane Williams, Ydanis Rodriguez and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, as well as numerous faith leaders — Ragbir struggled to find words to describe his overwhelming emotions.
“I am happy to be back here with my family, to sit with you, to sing with you again,” Ragbir said. “[But] I’m a realist. I need to prepare for what could happen, even though I hope I am wrong.”
The check-in did not end in Ragbir’s deportation but the threat of being sent back to his native Trinidad and Tobago, away from his wife and family, will continue to dog Ragbir for at least another month. Ragbir was told to return to Federal Plaza again on April 11 and to seek a passport from Trinidad.
(Before ICE can initiate a deportation it must first confirm that the immigrant's country of origin will receive him.)
“It’s really uncertain,” said Ragbir’s attorney Alina Das with the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University. “On one hand, it’s not an unusual requirement. It’s often part of an order of supervision that you have to make efforts get travel documents and to keep them up-to-date. But we haven’t been asked to do this in many, many years.”
Ragbir has avoided deportation since 2011 due to a series of stay-of-removal orders from ICE. The current order expires in January of 2018 but is subject to prosecutorial discretion and can be revoked at anytime. Das noted that, in Ragbir’s case, the stay-of-removal orders have typically lasted between one and two years with periodic yearly check-ins required.
“That’s what feels really strange about this,” Das said. “We’re being asked to come-in in a month with a letter from a consulate for the purposes of obtaining a travel document. We had thought the intention was to not actually deport him.”
As executive director for the New Sanctuary Coalition, Ragbir has helped hundreds of people like himself, connecting immigrants seeking legal, financial and spiritual support with members of faith-based communities eager to provide assistance. Both Ragbir and Das expressed a hope that the attention he is receiving will help mobilize more people to the movement for immigration reforms, including a path to citizenship the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States, and an end to the ICE raids that advocates say have intensified since Trump took office.
Ragbir’s approach to his own case, meanwhile, might best be described as pessimism of the mind, optimism of the spirit. He hopes the courage he displays in the face of his own deportation will serve an example to others.
“On Nov. 8, when we saw the [presidential] election results we knew what was going to happen,” Ragbir said. “We thought that today was going to be a hard day and we were prepared for that. But we were wrong. And I hope I am wrong on April 11. I’m not going to sit back quietly and just let them take me away.”