When word came down from the upper floors of Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was taking custody of Ravidath Ragbir and intended to deport him, hundreds of his supporters, standing outside on the cold sidewalk, raised up their hands to the monolithic building and screamed.
Ragbir had entered the building willingly, on his own steam, accompanied by his wife and family, his legal team, and a handful of elected officials. Now, his friends outside learned, Ravi — as everyone knows him — wouldn’t be coming back to them. They had planned for this possibility even as they hoped it wouldn’t come, but the plans soon gave way to a spontaneous gesture of resistance. As the ambulance carrying a handcuffed Ragbir — he had briefly fainted when he was taken into custody — pulled out of the Federal Plaza garage, supporters attempted to stop its progress. Friends, colleagues, clergy, and city council members put their bodies in front of the vehicle, blocking it with their lives.
The resulting chaos was exacerbated by law enforcement officers who pushed, yanked, and choked the nonviolent protesters. By the time the melee had died down outside the gates of New York City Hall, 18 people had been arrested and the ambulance had gotten away.
The EMT vehicle dropped Ragbir’s wife off at the front door of the hospital, but then sped off, transporting him to a different hospital. Ragbir was briefly examined before being taken in quick succession to immigration detention centers in Manhattan and New Jersey. By that evening, he was at the Krome Detention Center in Florida, awaiting final deportation to the country of his birth, Trinidad.
Ragbir moved to the United States more than 20 years ago and became a legal permanent resident. In 2001, he was convicted of wire fraud conspiracy for his role in a mortgage business that came under criminal investigation. After 2 1/2 years in prison, he was ordered to be deported. Throughout years of ongoing appeals, he was incarcerated first in New Jersey and then in Alabama. When he finally won his release pending the appeal’s outcome, Ragbir devoted his energies to helping people like himself: immigrants in danger of deportation.
The New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, where Ragbir is the executive director, emphasizes the power of illuminating the dark and confusing workings of the federal immigration machine. The coalition runs workshops to help immigrants fleeing violence in their home countries to apply for asylum. It sends groups of friendly volunteers to accompany people called to hearings in immigration court or mandatory check-ins with ICE officials. It builds a community of trust and mutual aid among New York’s most vulnerable and isolated immigrants.
The New Sanctuary Coalition’s work builds on a movement begun by religious congregations in the 1980s to support Central American refugees in defiance of Reagan-era immigration policies. Grounded in religious congregations, the movement relies in part on the government’s reluctance to send law enforcement into houses of worship. The concept of sanctuary — that people inside houses of worship enjoy some special protection from agents of the state — goes back centuries. But it doesn’t rest on any firm legal footing. While certain actions, like disrupting religious ceremonies, are illegal, the force keeping ICE officers from raiding churches has more to do with optics, said Rev. Michael Ellick, a former pastor at Judson Memorial Church and a friend of Ragbir. “It’s like, ‘OK, you can come and do that, but we’re going to have cameras rolling and everyone’s going to see you storming a church,’” he said. “Previous administrations, we thought they wouldn’t do that. But this administration? Who knows?”
Ragbir’s detention was the second such arrest of a New Sanctuary Coalition leader by ICE in the space of a week. It was only the most recent and public in a series of developments that advocates believe is part of a concerted effort to intimidate and dismantle the immigration rights movement in New York City. Coalition members say unmarked cars with heavily tinted windows have begun surveilling churches and movement leaders’ homes. Clergy who work with New York’s immigrant communities say that ICE agents have repeatedly entered church property and interrogated people as they come and go from houses of worship.
The events in New York are taking place against a national backdrop of escalating actions against prominent immigrant rights figures. On December 20, ICE agents in Washington state began deportation proceedings against Maru Mora-Villalpando, founder of an organization that leads weekly rallies and vigils outside the gates of Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. In Colorado, ICE detained the husband of Ingrid Encalada Latorre, an undocumented Peruvian mother who has been taking sanctuary in Denver-area churches since 2016.
“It seems like they’re trying to create an atmosphere of uncertainty where nobody feels safe,” said Nathan Yaffe, a lawyer who works with the New Sanctuary Coalition to help people file asylum applications. “At the same time, they’re trying to exile our moral leaders in order to break the movement.”
“ICE thinks that by removing the leaders,” Yaffe added, “they can destroy the movement.”