Scenes From a Sanctuary City 


The message that Ravi Ragbir had been detained went out at 10:09 a.m., but it seemed to reach people in waves. One by one, hundreds of protesters marching in silence around the federal building where Ragbir was checking in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement lifted their phones and registered the same look of disbelief. Their expressions led others to ask in hushed tones what had happened, and word continued to travel this way, by phone or by face, until everyone in the procession knew.

As with so many immigrants in the United States, these check-ins had become routine for Ragbir, an immigrant from Trinidad and executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City. He received his green card in 1994, but his status was thrown into limbo following a 2001 wire fraud conviction, leading to two years appealing the case while on house arrest, a 30-month sentence, a deportation order, and another two years spent in an immigration detention facility. Ragbir was released from detention in 2008, and these ICE check-ins have been a fact of his life ever since.

Thursday morning was different. “It was ugly,” Amy Gottlieb, Ragbir’s wife, said later that day. “The ICE officer was resolute, angry, unwilling to engage in a conversation. He sat down and told us what he was planning to do: enforce removal.”

This was both surprising and not. Officials in the Trump administration have made it clear time and again that the small measure of protection and discretion some immigrants experienced under the previous administration no longer applied. They warned that people should feel afraid, then acted accordingly.

In the last year, parents, sick children, domestic violence victims, and younger immigrants with temporary protection through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program have been targeted, detained, and in some cases deported. Just a week before Ragbir’s detention, Jean Montrevil, a Haitian immigrant, community leader, and co-founder of the New Sanctuary Coalition, was arrested by ICE agents outside his home in Queens.

A little before 11:00 a.m., an announcement was made that Ragbir had fainted, but recovered quickly, and would be taken out of the building in an ambulance. The morning until that point had been mournful, slow. What happened next felt fast.

The New Sanctuary Coalition is a regular presence outside of 26 Federal Plaza, offering an accompaniment program and other support to immigrants facing the threat of deportation and checking in with ICE. But in eight days, it had lost two of its leaders—both in the country for decades, both fathers, both deeply immersed in their communities, and both defiant of this administration’s immigration crackdowns. For many people present that morning, it did not feel like coincidence.

As the vehicle pulled onto the street with Ragbir and Gottlieb inside, dozens of his supporters formed a wall around it, blocking the flow of traffic in an act of spontaneous, nonviolent resistance. Police started shoving and detaining protesters, including members of the New York City Council, as the ambulance moved at a crawl through Lower Manhattan.

The traffic was so still at one point that I watched as a cop listlessly tied his shoes on the bumper of the ambulance. Around him, more people were being arrested. People observing from the sidewalk shouted “shame!” at an officer ripping a banner out of the hands of a seated protester. Officers pulled at the jacket of City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez as they tried to arrest him, while protesters and aides gathered around them calling on the cops to show restraint. Council member Jumaane Williams, a little ways down the block, received similar treatment before being slammed into the hood of a car and cuffed.

This was what a “sanctuary city” looked like on a gray Manhattan morning: cops arresting nonviolent protesters and elected officials for resisting the deportation of a friend and community leader.

“If you speak to the black immigrant community across New York City, they will tell you this is not a sanctuary city. People are put into deportation proceedings for jumping a turnstile. If this was a sanctuary city, the targeting of leaders in our spaces would not be happening,” Carlene Pinto, an organizer and manager of member engagement with the New York Immigration Coalition, said when I asked her about the police presence that morning. “As Reverend Donna Schaper [senior minister at Judson Memorial Church] said, we hope the NYPD will become New Yorkers and stop doing ICE’s work.”

But police had done ICE’s work. By that afternoon, Ragbir, according to his defense committee, was already out of the city.

“We are pursuing every legal avenue available to us to make sure that he’s able to stay home,” said Alina Das, a professor of clinical law at New York University School of Law, co-director of its Immigrant Rights Clinic, and one of Ragbir’s lawyers. “And more importantly, the community is coming together to voice their dissent to what’s happening and put on the pressure so he can be released.”

A federal court has ordered a hearing for Ragbir on January 29th and issued another temporary order to prevent him from being moved out of the New York region, though his defense committee said he may already be in a detention facility in Florida.

“You have to really wonder, when ICE has targeted two people who are immigrant rights leaders so close in time together, associated with a movement that really has the power to bring more justice to our immigration system, what message they’re trying to send,” Das continued. “We came into today’s check-in with our eyes open.”

Nearly three hours after people had first gathered at Foley Square to support Ragbir, police were still threatening protesters and preparing to move those who had already been arrested.

Councilmembers Rodriguez and Williams were among 18 people arrested. Rodriguez, a representative for Manhattan’s 10th district, was pushed into a paddy wagon by officers shouting “stop resisting.” Williams, a representative for Brooklyn’s 45th district, led protesters in a call and response while being led into a separate police vehicle: “When they look back on history,” he said, “we will be on the right side.”

On the sidewalk nearby, a brass band played. Protesters held signs that read “Release Ravi Now” and sang “Which Side Are You On?”

For both cops and protesters yesterday, it was a question asked and answered.

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