[Pnews] As ICE Targets Immigrant Rights Activists for Deportation, Suspicious Vehicles Outside Churches Stoke Surveillance Fears

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jan 19 18:18:15 EST 2018


https://theintercept.com/2018/01/19/ice-new-sanctuary-movement-ravi-ragbir-deportation/ 



  As ICE Targets Immigrant Rights Activists for Deportation, Suspicious
  Vehicles Outside Churches Stoke Surveillance Fears

Nick Pinto - January 19, 2018
------------------------------------------------------------------------

W_hen 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?”

    “ICE thinks that by removing the leaders, they can destroy the
    movement.”

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.”

O_n the morning_ of January 3, a week before Ragbir was scheduled to 
check in at ICE’s Field Office in Lower Manhattan, his colleague Jean 
Montrevil had just left work and was on his way home to Queens. Arriving 
outside his house, he was stopped by ICE officials, according to his 
lawyer, Joshua Bardavid. The stop came as a surprise – Montrevil wasn’t 
scheduled for his next ICE check-in until March, and he had never missed 
a scheduled appointment with immigration officials. A business owner and 
father of four, he was hardly a flight risk.

    “We war-gamed this over and over. This was the best time and place
    to take him.”

Montrevil emigrated from Haiti with a green card in 1986, but was 
convicted a few years later, while still a teenager, on drug charges. He 
served a five-year prison sentence. In the nearly 30 years since 
his juvenile conviction, Montrevil has by all accounts been a model 
citizen. “He got married, had four children, started a company, and 
showed that what he did when he was 17 was not who he was,” Bardavid 
said. “He made a serious mistake, and he made all the amends he could 
and then some.”

A judge, however, had found that Montrevil was deportable shortly after 
his conviction — a determination made without allowing the young Haitian 
a lawyer or witnesses, Bardavid said. Montrevil has been fighting to 
correct that error ever since. Montrevil continued to check in 
periodically with ICE as he waited for a ruling in his appeal. After the 
last check-in over the summer, his first under the Trump administration, 
he believed that he had reached an understanding with ICE officials, 
Bardavid said: As long as the appeal was pending, ICE would hold off on 
deportation proceedings.

That understanding was shattered on January 3, when ICE agents arrested 
Montrevil outside his home. Bardavid, along with family and friends in 
the New Sanctuary movement, scrambled to find him and win his release. 
By the time Montrevil was located in New Jersey, he was only a few hours 
away from being transported to ICE’s Krome Detention Center in Florida.

Days later, Bardavid asked Scott Mechkowski, ICE’s deputy Field Office 
director for New York, why the agency had sent a team to apprehend 
Montrevil at home months before his scheduled check-in. “We war-gamed 
this over and over,” Mechkowski said, according to Bardavid. “This was 
the best time and place to take him.”

On Tuesday morning, Montrevil disappeared from ICE’s online detainee 
locator database. Shortly afterward, Bardavid learned that he had been 
deported to Haiti.

T_he inexplicable surprise_ detention of one of their leaders set 
members of the New Sanctuary Coalition on edge. The same night Montrevil 
was taken into custody, members of Ragbir’s defense committee met at the 
New Sanctuary Coalition offices at Judson Memorial Chapel in Manhattan 
to prepare for his ICE check-in the following week.

A little after 9 p.m., Will Coley, a member of Ragbir’s defense 
committee, was leaving the office when a man in an SUV called out to him 
through the vehicle’s dark tinted windows.

“He starts asking me where the entrance to the church is,” Coley said. 
“I said, ‘Well, there are a couple different entrances, what are you 
looking for?’ He says, ‘Well, my friend is here for a meeting.’ I said, 
‘What meeting?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘What’s his name?’ And 
he said, ‘Tom … Boland?’ It was almost like he made it up on the spot.”

Coley went back into the church offices, but there was no “Tom Boland” 
to be found. When he went back outside, the man and his SUV had disappeared.

“That’s when I started paying attention to the other cars on the 
street,” Coley said. Surveying the street, Coley and other New Sanctuary 
members identified at least three vehicles on the church’s block, all 
with New York license plates, all parked illegally, all idling, all with 
distinctive antennas, and all with dark tinted windows.

Coley and a partner decided to speak to the people in the cars. One 
woman, in a sedan, denied that she was affiliated with immigration 
enforcement, but declined to say why she was idling on the block.

    “I look down on the passenger floorboard, and I see a white license
    plate that says DHS.”

Looping around the block, Coley and his partner approached a man idling 
in a minivan. When the man rolled down the window to speak with them, 
Coley looked into the front seat. “I look down on the passenger 
floorboard, and I see a white license plate that says DHS,” Coley said. 
ICE operates as part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Ragbir’s legal team began to wonder whether it was safe for him to go 
back to his home in downtown Brooklyn that night, or if ICE was 
preparing to grab him the way it had Montrevil. Coley and two other 
friends of Ragbir’s decided to take a ride-share to Ragbir’s home to see 
if it too was under surveillance. Along the way, they picked up Yaffe, 
the asylum lawyer. The group saw idling vehicles outside Ragbir’s 
apartment and decided to send Coley up to see if it provoked any 
reaction. “As soon as he approached the front door, two people in the 
two front vehicles, who had been looking down, not seeming to pay 
attention, started craning their necks,” Yaffe said. “When he went in, 
they started talking on radios. We could hear the distorted noise of 
radio voices from across the street.”

When he came back down from the apartment a few minutes later, Coley 
knocked on the windows of the two vehicles, trying to talk with their 
drivers. Neither would roll down their windows.

Rattled by the day’s events, their minds racing, Ragbir’s friends tried 
to puzzle out what was going on. Was ICE trying to avoid a media 
spectacle by taking him in early and clandestinely? When he was called 
to the ICE Field Office in March, hundreds of supporters had filled 
Foley Square, outside 26 Federal Plaza; so many reporters had tried to 
follow him to the check-in that Ragbir wasn’t able to enter the building 
for 15 minutes. City council members who had accompanied Ragbir were 
appalled by what they saw in the ICE waiting room and spoke passionately 
to the press afterward about the inhumanity of ICE’s deportation 
regime. (ICE declined to answer questions about its alleged surveillance 
of Judson and Ragbir’s home.)

After the night of the mysterious cars outside his apartment, Ragbir’s 
friends made sure that wherever he went, he was accompanied by someone 
at all times.

T_wo days after_ Ragbir’s allies saw suspicious cars outside his home, 
four clergy members affiliated with the New Sanctuary Coalition arrived 
at ICE’s offices in Manhattan and asked for a meeting. They were invited 
into an office with Mechkowski, the office’s deputy director.

“It was not many questions from us. It was a lot of him talking to and 
at us,” said Rev. Micah Bucey, a pastor at Judson Memorial Church. Rev. 
Juan Carlos Ruiz, a Lutheran minister and organizer with the New 
Sanctuary Coalition, added, “It felt like confession.”

The reverends had gone in intending only to talk about Montrevil, and 
not the delicate question of Ragbir’s impending check-in, but to their 
surprise, Mechkowski made the connection himself. “He linked the two,” 
Bucey said. “He talked about them being the two highest-profile cases in 
New York City.”

Bucey paraphrased the gist of Mechkowski’s message that day: “My hands 
are tied by higher-ups. We have to do what we have to do. These are 
high-profile cases, but you have to understand that deferred status is 
not a status. If we defer these cases further, it will just go to 
someone else, and I won’t allow that.” (ICE declined to make Mechkowski 
available for an interview or to answer questions about his meeting with 
the pastors.)

Asked by the clergy whether ICE was surveilling Judson Memorial Church, 
Mechkowski flatly denied it, Ruiz said. “I further asked, ‘You didn’t 
send anyone to Ravi’s house?’ He said, ‘No, because I know where Ravi 
lives, and I have seen him walking around, and I could have taken him 
myself.’ And he mentioned the street. He had it in his mind.”

Bucey and Ruiz said Mechkowski told them that Montrevil’s detention had 
been done to avoid the sort of noisy protest that had accompanied 
Ragbir’s previous check-in nine months earlier. “He said they didn’t 
want the display of wailing kids and wailing clergy,” Bucey said. 
Mechkowski issued a warning, the reverend said, about Ragbir’s next 
check-in. According to Bucey, Mechkowski said, “That can’t happen this 
time around.”

T_he cars outside_ Judson aren’t the only alleged instances of houses of 
worship affiliated with the New Sanctuary movement coming under 
surveillance. Amandus Derr, senior pastor of St. Peter’s, a Lutheran 
church on Lexington and 54th Street in Manhattan, said he personally 
encountered a pair of ICE agents on their way into the church on 
December 11 as some 300 people were attending Mass.

Derr, who was not leading the proceedings, was walking out of the church 
on his way home when he encountered two men in overcoats, jackets, and 
ties, wearing no visible identification. “I asked them if I could help 
them,” Derr recalled. “They said, ‘We hear there’s a large Hispanic 
celebration going on.’ They were not Hispanic. I said, ‘Well, there’s a 
Mass going on right now in our sanctuary. Our bishop is here. Do you 
want to go to the Mass?’ Their response was, ‘No, we just want to look 
around and maybe talk to some people. We’re from Immigration and Custom 
Enforcement.’ I said, ‘Are you looking for someone specific?’ They said 
no. I said, ‘Do you have a warrant?’ They said no.”

Derr says he took the agents by the elbows and escorted them out of the 
church and down the block.

“It’s the first time something this clear has happened at our church,” 
Derr said.

    “They said they were from ICE. I told them they couldn’t be on the
    church steps, on church property, and that person left.”

“There are two principles here,” Derr said. “One is, a house of worship 
in the United States, maybe not legally, but historically, since 
forever, is a sanctuary.” Even more disturbing to Derr was the timing, 
he said: “There was a Mass going on. Interrupting a religious service is 
illegal.”

The encroachment of ICE agents onto St. Peter’s property isn’t unique. 
At St. Jacobi, a Lutheran Church in the Sunset Park neighborhood of 
Brooklyn, the congregation is largely Spanish- and Chinese-speaking and 
includes many undocumented people. The church often hosts immigration 
workshops for the community, which are well-attended. But Pastor Gary 
Mills said he was surprised, at one workshop in the middle of last 
September, to see a white woman in attendance. “You never see white 
people in that church or in that neighborhood,” Mills says. “I asked her 
what she was doing and she said she was with Immigration and Customs 
Enforcement. I asked her if she could please leave the church, which she 
did.”

Mills says he complained about the incident to the ICE Field Office in 
Manhattan, where he was told “they would address it.” But a couple of 
weeks later, Mills was presiding over a Spanish-language Sunday Mass at 
his other church, Advent Lutheran, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, 
when ICE made another appearance.

“There was someone who was stopping people on their way out and asking 
them where they were from,” Mills said. A congregant alerted Mills, who 
confronted the visitor. “They said they were from ICE. I told them they 
couldn’t be on the church steps, on church property, and that person left.”

Neither congregation is associated with the New Sanctuary movement, 
Mills said, but they do provide well-publicized services for 
undocumented immigrants. The episodes have contributed to an atmosphere 
of anxiety in the immigrant community. “There’s fear within the 
community,” Mills said. “Do we dare come into this church or into 
another house of worship?”

An ICE spokesperson declined to answer The Intercept’s questions about 
its agents’ alleged presence on church property, instead referring to 
ICE’s internal policy categorizing places of worship, along with 
schools, health care facilities, and rallies, as “sensitive locations.” 
According to that policy, “Enforcement actions may occur at sensitive 
locations in limited circumstances, but will generally be avoided. ICE 
officers and agents may conduct an enforcement action at a sensitive 
location if there are exigent circumstances, if other law enforcement 
actions have led officers to a sensitive location, or with prior 
approval from an appropriate supervisory official.”

T_he apparent attack_ on the New Sanctuary movement, specifically, and 
advocates of immigrant rights, more broadly, brings longstanding debates 
over New York City’s cooperation with ICE into sharp relief. Mayor Bill 
de Blasio has repeatedly proclaimed New York a “sanctuary city,” and 
city government has taken some steps to protect its residents from ICE. 
With some significant exceptions, for example, city police and 
corrections officers don’t comply with ICE requests to prolong the 
detention of people in their custody so ICE can take them into custody.

Nonetheless, the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group, a heavily armed, 
quick-response unit founded in 2015, worked together with federal 
officers to clear the way for the vehicle carrying Ragbir out of the 
Lower Manhattan’s Federal Plaza last week, as protesters tried to block 
the ambulance’s progress. The NYPD arrested 18 people that morning, 
including clergy and city council members. The NYPD also provided an 
escort for the ICE agents transporting Ragbir, first to a hospital, then 
to an ICE detention center in Manhattan, and finally to the city 
boundary at the entrance of the Holland Tunnel, as Ragbir was shuttled 
to Newark Airport, where he would be put on a plane to Florida.

    “When the police are clearing the street to make sure they have a
    smooth way to the detention center, that is cooperation.”

A police spokesperson told The Intercept that the NYPD does not 
routinely provide escorts for ICE detainee transport. “Last week’s 
interaction with DHS/ICE was based solely on the overall public safety 
issues which existed at the time,” the spokesperson said. “The reason 
for SRG accompanying DHS/ICE to the Holland Tunnel was due to the fact 
that earlier that day there was an incident that created a potentially 
dangerous traffic situation with protesters and street crowds, and we 
wanted to insure that we had resources immediately available to deal 
with such an incident within the city limits.”

That explanation wasn’t reassuring to some members of the New Sanctuary 
Coalition, who wondered how police cooperation with the attempted 
deportation of a nonviolent immigration rights leader could be squared 
with de Blasio’s repeated commitment to make New York itself a 
“sanctuary.” “When the police are clearing the street to make sure they 
have a smooth way to the detention center, that is cooperation,” said 
Ruiz, one of the clergymen arrested that day.

Leaving the New Sanctuary offices at Judson Memorial Chapel the night of 
Ragbir’s detention, a longtime volunteer for the movement said she had 
another troubling interaction with the police. Speaking through a 
translator and requesting not to be identified by her real name because 
of her immigration status, Silvia, a Mexican woman in her 40s who lives 
in Harlem, said she had left the church around 9:30 p.m. The blocks 
between the church entrance were lined with parked police vehicles, she 
said. “I was walking with my daughter, nieces, brother, and 
sister-in-law,” she said. “A white policeman stopped me. I saw his 
silver badge. He said, ‘Señora!’ And then, in English, he asked me why 
we were coming out of that building, what we were doing in there.” 
Pretending to misunderstand, Silvia gestured at a nearby New York 
University building. “‘NYU? I’m not coming out of NYU,’ I said. ‘Why? 
Why are you asking?’ But the officer wouldn’t answer, and he told me to 
move along.”

A police spokesperson told The Intercept that, while there was an 
increased police presence in the neighborhood that night, it was related 
to a different event down the block from Judson church and unrelated to 
the New Sanctuary movement.

A _week after_ he was first detained, Ravi Ragbir remained in ICE 
custody in Florida. His lawyers petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus 
in federal court contesting the legality of his detention, and a federal 
judge has issued a temporary stay of deportation, directing ICE not to 
move Ragbir away from New York. ICE initially balked at returning 
Ragbir, but after a January 16 hearing, at the judge’s urging, ICE 
officials agreed to return Ragbir to detention in the New York area 
while his legal challenge is resolved.

ICE declined to answer a long list of specific questions from The 
Intercept for this article, and instead offered a general statement. 
“Mr. Ragbir is the subject of a final removal order,” the statement 
said. The statement said that, at the time, Ragbir was being 
“transported back to New York pending resolution of his court 
proceedings.” (He arrived at an Orange County, New York, detention 
facility on Thursday.) In addition to acknowledging the ongoing court 
proceedings, however, ICE also said Ragbir had “exhausted his petitions 
and appeals” — a statement representatives for Ragbir said was false, 
pointing to an open court case and a motion to reopen immigration 
proceedings.

The New Sanctuary Coalition’s core work, connecting immigrants with 
legal counsel, assisting with asylum applications, and accompanying 
people to their immigration court dates and ICE check-ins, continues, at 
least for the moment, unimpeded.

People close to New Sanctuary, however, say they are concerned that 
something fundamental has changed in recent weeks and that federal 
immigration enforcement is targeting their movement.

Joshua Bardavid, the lawyer of the now-deported New Sanctuary leader 
Jean Montrevil, said that the events of the last two weeks leave him 
with no doubt that ICE is targeting leaders of the immigrant rights 
movement. “This was not just ICE going about its daily business, this 
was a plan,” Bardavid said. “There is absolutely no way that Jean and 
Ravi were targeted with detention the same day and other places that 
support them were surveilled and had to deal with federal agents all on 
the same day. There are few things I’m so certain of.”

Montrevil’s deportation signals a disturbing legal shift, Bardavid said: 
The Haitian activist’s challenge to his underlying order of removal was 
still pending when he was deported. “It’s absolutely new for ICE to be 
deporting people who still have open appeals,” he said.

Bardavid believes the actions against the New Sanctuary Coalition 
leaders must have required approval beyond ICE’s New York Field Office, 
at the national level. “This means there’s a group of government 
officials who got together and made this decision,” he said. “That’s 
terrifying. It means there are people who want to undercut the immigrant 
rights movement. It means that the government no longer sees that it has 
an obligation or a reason to talk with immigrant rights organizations 
and has no problem destroying what dialogue and relationship existed.”

Bucey, the Judson pastor, said that while he believes ICE has targeted 
Ragbir and Montrevil for deportation in an effort to weaken the 
movement, he doesn’t think it will work, because the movement they built 
empowers immigrants to be their own leaders. “All these tendrils have 
grown out of the wounds of these chopped-off limbs,” Bucey said. “It’s 
an entire community now, not just a little institution led by a few people.”

Sylvia, the New Sanctuary member who described her encounter with a 
police officer, admits that the events of the last weeks have left her 
so terrified that she frequently finds her legs shaking uncontrollably. 
“They’re trying to intimidate people and make people afraid so that they 
win the battle,” Sylvia said in an interview at the New Sanctuary 
offices. “But I’m not going to let them win. When you fall in a river, 
your instinct is to float, and for me to float is to keep coming here, 
to keep fighting. I feel I can be useful to other families, and that 
makes me feel good.”

Top photo: Protesters accompany prominent immigration activist Ravi 
Ragbir, outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office at 
the U.S. Federal Building during a Solidarity Rally Against Deportation 
on March 9, 2017, in New York City.

-- 
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863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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