MANHATTAN (CN) – U.S. immigration officials backed down Wednesday on their burdensome transfer of an activist whose plight inspired a protest where some lawmakers were arrested.
Ravi Ragbir was detained on Jan. 11, 2018, while reporting for a routine check-in at the New York field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A native of Trinidad, 53-year-old Ragbir has become a prominent figure in recent years for his work as executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, an immigrant-rights group.
Though attorneys at the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic met Ragbir’s detention with a Jan. 11 federal complaint, ICE transferred Ragbir to a detention facility in Miami, Florida, that same afternoon.
ICE initially refused to bring Ragbir back to New York — where his family, community and attorneys are fighting his removal — even in the face of a temporary stay from the court.
After a hearing on Tuesday, ICE advised U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest in letter this afternoon that Ragbir will return to New York. Shortly thereafter Forrest scrawled an order on the letter that denies ICE’s request to vacate her stay.
NYU attorney Alina Das welcomed the government’s about-face.
“We obviously are thrilled that Ravi will be closer to home now, though we still believe that his detention is unlawful and he deserves to be with his family and his community,” she said in a phone interview. “And we wish that ICE had done the right thing from the beginning.”
Ragbir’s wife Amy Gottlieb described today’s development as waking up from a five-day “nightmare.”
“The government took my husband away from me and for a time no one would tell me where he was,” she said in a statement. “When we learned he was taken to an immigration prison over a thousand miles away, I was both heartbroken and outraged. They never should have taken him away from his community in the first place, and I will not rest until he is free.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan Waterman made a blockbuster admission about Ragbir’s detention.
“He was detained to effect removal,” Waterman said. “What we don’t know is why they did it now.”
Ragbir did spend five years in prison after he was convicted of wire fraud in 2001, but the U.S. government waited roughly a decade to cite this old criminal record as justification for removing the prominent activist.
Filed in New Jersey, Ragbir’s fraud charge stemmed from his work as a loan processor for a mortgage lender. He is still fighting to reverse this conviction, arguing that he was a low-level worker following the bank’s rules.
The New York case meanwhile heads for a hearing on the merits of a habeas petition on Jan. 29.
In an interview outside of court Tuesday evening, Gottlieb said she had seen her husband faint last week as ICE agents took him into custody.
“He told me that he was going to black out, and his eyes rolled back – and he fainted,” Gottlieb said, emphasizing that her husband does not have any medical condition that would normally precipitate this.
“They were not sympathetic,” she added, referring to the officers. “There was no sympathy whatsoever.”
Das declined to speculate on why the government decided to transfer Ragbir closer to his family.
“It’s hard for me to speak to that, but I do think that the outpouring of community support for Ravi has moved a lot of people in government to question the decisions that have been made,” she said.
In addition to the lawsuit last week, Ragbir’s arrest sparked a Jan. 11 protest of hundreds in New York. Police arrested Councilmen Jumaane Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez at the rally.
Ragbir immigrated to the United States in 1991.