Ravi Ragbir is fighting for his emancipation on two counts: the freedom to remain in his adopted homeland, and the freedom to speak his mind. The longtime community activist, who heads the immigrant-advocacy group New Sanctuary Coalition out of New York City, was sent to Florida for immediate deportation earlier this year, and won a temporary reprieve after a tough legal battle. He now faces a federal appeals court in an unusual free-speech case that challenges the Trump administration’s immigration regime and seeks to defend all immigrants’ First Amendment rights.
Ragbir, who believes he was arrested in retaliation for his outspoken criticism of Trump, is arguing before an appeals court that he is a victim of a campaign of political terror against migrant communities. As a prominent community organizer for families facing deportation, he alleges that he was unjustly targeted when reporting for a routine immigration check-in—something he had been doing for years, based on a lapsed removal order for a conviction record from many years earlier. He was then held in a remote detention center in Florida, apparently a deliberate attempt to silence his activism and remove him from his community.
Following an intense public uproar, he was granted a temporary stay of deportation by a district court, and is pursuing full resolution of his First Amendment claim. His pending appeal sounds a clarion call for immigrant communities nationwide: Trump’s ruthless criminalization of immigrant activists is a war on free expression for citizens and noncitizens alike.
Speaking last week at a teach-in at a Brooklyn church, Ragbir, a soft-spoken middle-aged man with a gray ponytail and Trinidadian lilt, connected his case to the news that the administration is building tent cities for detained migrant families at the border.: “Everyone needs to say, ‘I cannot allow this to happen…. We cannot let people be detained, let children be taken away, let our fathers be taken away…. So everyone here needs to put their bodies on the line.”
Ragbir’s legal team, headed by New York University’s immigrant-rights clinic and Arnold & Porter, claim that his fight against deportation is intertwined with his First Amendment rights. Attorney Stanton Jones argued before the court, “The government cannot deport someone in retaliation for their core political speech,” just as it cannot fire a civil servant solely for expressing certain political views.
When he was first targeted for deportation in January, Ragbir charges, the government sought to silence his activism, and revealed its animus when agents “expressed ‘resentment’ toward Mr. Ragbir, and warned [New Sanctuary] Coalition leaders, ‘you don’t want to make matters worse by saying things.’” Besides, the suit argues, ICE had allowed him to remain peacefully in the country for years and only “abruptly reversed course and attempted to deport him.” The brazen manner in which ICE handled his case under Trump’s new “zero tolerance” approach to immigration-law enforcement, advocates say, amounted to an “unlawful” act, aimed at revenge for his political activities.
Ragbir also rejects the government’s argument, based on its national-security authority, that the First Amendment doesn’t prevent ICE from deporting someone engaged in vocal criticism of ICE. His court brief counters that Ragbir’s “outspoken advocacy is at the core of the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee, and his expression is in line with our greatest civic traditions.”
The political machinations surrounding Ragbir’s legal dilemma may reflect a wider pattern of politicized deportations. Ragbir’s legal team points to “more than a dozen instances nationwide” of migrants who have faced retaliation from ICE “based on their protected advocacy for immigrants’ rights.” Several prominent immigrant-labor organizers in Vermont’s dairy industry were temporarily apprehended and detained in March 2017, which led to widespread protest and accusations that they had been deliberately targeted in retaliation for their organizing work.
In March, Alejandra Pablos, an Arizona-based immigrant-rights activist, “was leading chants at a peaceful protest in Virginia outside of the Department of Homeland Security,” according to the advocacy network Mijente, and was “singled out and detained by DHS agents.” Following her initial release, she was returned to custody after a routine ICE check-in to follow up on an earlier removal order. She managed to secure release on bond, but later reflected in an interview with Ms. that she had “felt targeted for being outspoken.” A Homeland Security agent, she recalled, even admitted he had thought that “arresting me because I was the loudest…would kind of diffuse the whole protest in general…. So, the goal was to try and silence all of us, not just me.”
ICE’s power to silence immigrants is at the core of Ragbir’s court case. A ruling in favor of ICE, according to the suit, would risk empowering the government to deport critics in retaliation arbitrarily, and in effect, “would give ICE free rein to weaponize final removal orders against public criticism and other protected speech, with no judicial or legal limit whatsoever.”
The petition echoes the words of the court that granted Ragbir a temporary reprieve last January: Citing a clean legal track record and the fact that he clearly posed no immediate security risk, district judge Katherine Forrest argued that “Taking such a man, and there are many such men and women like him, and subjecting him to [the equivalent of] penal detention, is certainly cruel…The Constitution demands better.” The decision was sealed with a grim plea: The government could be bent on forcing him out of the country, but he was at least “entitled to the freedom to say goodbye.”
Nine months later, however, Ragbir is struggling to turn his right to goodbye into a right to remain. Whatever happens, he knows he cannot beat ICE by retreating in fear—but only by speaking even louder than before. He’s doubling down on his activism in his First Amendment case in the hopes that even if he’s forced to say goodbye to his community, his neighbors will keep fighting for their right to stay. As Alina Das, an attorney on the defense team, explains, “Ravi Ragbir has spoken out against the injustice of deportation at great personal risk to himself. If we have any hope of understanding the flaws of our immigration system, we must protect the voices of those directly affected.”
At the teach-in, Das told the gathering: “Much of what is at stake is really going to be played out within the courtroom walls. But we know that the power of this movement comes from what’s happening on the streets and with all of you.”
Ragbir reminded the audience to look past their fears. “We all have limitations. But when our society is at risk, when our lives are at risk…. We need to break those restraints.” As the evening proceeded with talks by local civil-rights activists and know-your-rights trainings, Ragbir said, “Instead of being terrified…let’s take that terror that we are facing, let’s channel it, let’s change it, let’s change it up, and let’s fight this administration. Let’s speak up. We have the right to free speech.”