NYC Sanctuary Churches: ICE is Ramping Up Harassment

(Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Religious leaders of the New Sanctuary Coalition are denouncing [the fact] that stalking of sanctuary churches by immigration authorities has intensified in recent months in retaliation for a vigorous campaign that seeks to prevent the imminent deportation of Ravi Ragbir, the group’s co-founder. The activist was detained this Thursday at 26 Federal Plaza after a routine check-in meeting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Ragbir’s Thursday detention quickly prompted a massive protest in Foley Square, in which many activists, as well as Council members Ydanis Rodríguez and Jumaane Williams, were arrested. The NYPD confirmed that a total of 18 people were detained during the demonstration.

In the past few months, the Coalition had intensified its peaceful demonstrations in defense of Ragbir, who immigrated to the U.S. from Trinidad and Tobago in 1991. The father and activist obtained a green card in 1994; however, in 2006 a judge ordered his deportation after he was convicted on a wire fraud charge, religious leaders said.

Ragbir was detained for 22 months after the 2006 deportation order, but was released in February 2008.

Council member Jumaane Williams being arrested. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Religious leaders argue that the tenacity with which the Coalition has defied President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration – by offering shelter to undocumented people at risk of deportation like Guatemalan mother Amanda Morales – has generated “ruthless harassment” by ICE.

Last week, leaders of the sanctuary movement identified several ICE vehicles parked near the sanctuary church Judson Memorial in Washington Square, an iconic temple for its progressive actions in defense of immigrants.

“This is not only about Ravi but about the movement behind him and the immigrant families who depend on those actions for their protection,” said Rev. Juan Carlos Ruíz, another Coalition leader who was arrested on Thursday during the Foley Square protest. “La Migra is harassing and surveying the sanctuary churches to send a clear message to the strong fight generated around the Ravi case. If we lose the sanctuary churches, we will also lose the schools, the hospitals, and other sensitive places, which are not that many to begin with.”

Council member Ydanis Rodriguez being arrested. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

“La Migra”: A persistent offender

The Judson Memorial legal clinic did not start as usual this week with a prayer, but with news that terrified the immigrant families that assemble there every Tuesday in search of help and protection.

“Last week we identified several ‘La Migra’ vehicles outside the church and Ravi’s house,” a worried Rev. Ruíz told some 50 attendees. “ICE agents are trying to sow fear because fear paralyzes. We are being very cautious, the Coalition will keep on defending you. If we organize we will be stronger. Don’t be afraid, on the contrary, this is the moment to remain united.”

The mothers listened attentively to Rev. Ruíz while they clutched their kids, recently arrived from Central America. “Let’s not allow fear to paralyze us,” reiterated the Lutheran priest.

Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Another sanctuary church, Saint Peter’s in Manhattan, reported the presence of immigration agents during the Virgin of Guadalupe celebration of Dec. 12.

“One of our priests spotted two people who did not belong to the festivity, and they identified themselves as ICE agents. They said that they knew there was an immigration event going on and they were just checking,” said Rev. Fabian Arias. “Our priest told them that that was a sanctuary church and invited them to leave.”

Arias added that this is not the first incident of this kind in the church, one of the first ones to join the sanctuary movement.

Rev. Fabian Arias (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

“On Palm Sunday last year we did a procession in support of Ravi, who back then had an appointment in Federal Plaza. Our members observed that a vehicle was slowly following us. At one moment, the window is rolled down, an agent shows an ICE badge, and then they leave,” sad Arias. “This kind of harassment is part of a malignant plan to instill fear in the community.”

Haitian immigrant Michellin De Eugene, who gets legal help from the Coalition, said that the presence of immigration agents around the churches is disturbing. “They are trying to scare us, hoping that we will stop fighting for our rights, but sanctuary churches are ours. It’s the only resource available and we will fight tooth and nail for them. We will do it for our children,” said De Eugene. “The priests are right. It’s not the time to be afraid.”

Michellin De Eugene receives legal help from the Coalition (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Seth Stein, a City Hall spokesman, said that targeting families in sensitive places like churches does not help improve public security. (…)

No arrests have been made at the churches

The religious leaders clarified that so far, no detentions have been carried out at the sanctuary churches (…) For that reason, activists met up last week with ICE officials, according to Arias.

“ICE officials informed us that they have not ordered any raids in the churches, but we have clear evidence of surveillance (…) We have taken measures such as turning off phones and recognizing each other during our meetings. We are in a state of siege,” said the reverend. (…)

Rep. Nydia Velázquez joined in the public outcry over Ravi’s detention (…).

“Ravi Ragbir has been a pillar in the immigrant community and a tireless champion for immigrant rights. His detention is unnecessary and inappropriate. Not only is this father, family man and community activist being needlessly detained, but these actions by ICE are creating profound fear and distrust among immigrants throughout our city. (…)” said Velázquez in a statement.

For her part, Public Advocate Letitia James expressed her concern about the stalking on the part of immigration agents at the two sanctuary churches most familiar to the movement.

“I am extremely concerned about the reports of ICE agents near our city’s churches, which are places widely known as safe harbors,” said James via email. (…)

An ICE spokesperson said in a statement sent to our editorial department that Ragbir’s immigration case has been submitted to extensive judicial review at multiple levels of the nation’s judicial system, including immigration courts and federal appeals courts. “In each review, the courts have uniformly held that Ragbir does not have a legal basis to remain in the U.S. In an exercise of discretion, the agency had previously allowed him to remain free from custody with periodic check-ins, while his case was under court review.”

The statement adds that Ragbir has since exhausted his petitions and appeals through the immigration courts, the Board of Immigration Appeals, and the U.S. District Court, and that he will remain in custody pending removal to Trinidad.

“In addition to Mr. Ragbir’s immigration violations, he has a previous federal conviction for conspiracy to commit wire fraud (…). He was sentenced to 30 months’ incarceration and ordered restitution in the amount of $350,001,” ends the statement.


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