MANHATTAN (CN) — A little more than two years ago, as the attempted deportation of immigration activist Ravi Ragbir became a lightning rod in New York, one Immigration and Customs Enforcement official vented about his agency’s worsening image.
The words of Scott Mechkowski, director of ICE’s New York City field office, appear in a Second Circuit ruling Thursday, as told to the court by New York City minister Micah Bucey.
“Nobody gets beat up in the news more than we do, every single day,” Mechkowski groused. “It’s all over the place … how we’re the Nazi squad, we have no compassion.”
The Second Circuit emphasized in particular the veiled threat in what Mechkowski said next, having just recounted a critique of ICE by Jean Montrevil, co-founder of an immigration advocacy group called the New Sanctuary of New York.
“Jean, from me to you … you don’t want to make matters worse by saying things,” Mechkowski said.
Montreveil had co-founded New Sanctuary with Ragbir, and the Second Circuit ruled 2-1 Thursday that Ragbir’s allegations are enough for the court to block his deportation — a respite that the ruling says will “likely” extend until at least January 2020.
The 73-page lead opinion also revives a claim that the ulterior motive for removing Ragbir was to squelch his activism, saying “Ragbir’s speech implicates the apex of protection under the First Amendment.”
“His advocacy for reform of immigration policies and practices is at the heart of current political debate among American citizens and other residents,” U.S. Circuit Judge Christopher Droney wrote, joined in the majority by U.S. Circuit Judge Pierre Leval.
Ragbir’s attorney R. Stanton Jones lauded the ruling.
“The Second Circuit correctly held that the First Amendment to our Constitution prohibits the government from openly and forcefully retaliating against political dissidents by deporting them, and the court further correctly held that Mr. Ragbir is entitled to pursue his First Amendment challenge in federal court,” Stanton, a partner at Arnold & Porter, said in a phone interview.
“Mr. Ragbir’s activism, his advocacy and his protest stand in America’s greatest civil traditions,” Jones said of his client.
U.S. Circuit Judge John Walker Jr. dissented, saying that the retaliation claims put forward by Ragbir do not amount to “outrageous” conduct.
“Ragbir, in this proceeding, has never taken issue with the fact that he is subject to a valid removal order entered in March 2007 as a result of his felony conviction for wire fraud,” Walker wrote. “Nor does he dispute that no stay prevents his removal other than the one entered by this court in this appeal.”
For supporters of the 55-year-old Ragbir, however, it is the passage of so much time that puts ICE’s motives in doubt: the government began the removal proceedings here roughly two decades after Ragbir’s conviction for wire fraud.
Attorney Jones compared the open retaliation Ragbir faces to behavior seen in Russia and North Korea.
“It is absolutely outrageous for the United States government to deport a leading political dissident in retaliation for his political advocacy,” Jones said.
The U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.
U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel is presiding over Ragbir’s case.
“Today’s decision will allow Mr. Ragbir to continue his important work advocating for the rights of immigrants in this country and for reforming immigration practices and ICE policies that are unjust,” said attorney Jones.
A federal judge in New Jersey denied Ragbir’s petition to vacate his wire fraud conviction in January. That ruling is now on appeal before the Third Circuit appeals court in Philadelphia.