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Federal judge blasts ICE for ‘cruel’ tactics, frees immigrant rights activist Ravi Ragbir

Ravi Ragbir, executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, being escorted by supporters after his annual check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on March 9 in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Comparing the Trump administration’s immigration practices to those of an authoritarian regime, a federal judge in Manhattan on Monday ordered the immediate release of a detained immigrant rights activist. U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest said it was unconstitutional and cruel for authorities to “pluck him out of his life without a moment’s notice.”

Forrest ruled that immigration officials violated Ravi Ragbir’s due process rights when they abruptly detained him during a Jan. 11 check-in. Ragbir, a Trinidad and Tobago native who was facing a final deportation order, should have been allowed “the freedom to say goodbye” and to organize his affairs before being taken into custody, the judge said.

“It ought not to be — and it has never before been — that those who have lived without incident in this country for years are subjected to treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust, regimes where those who have long lived in a country may be taken without notice from streets, home, and work. And sent away,” said Forrest, who read her seven-page opinion aloud in court.

“We are not that country,” Forrest said, “and woe be the day that we become that country under a fiction that laws allow it.”

Supporters in the packed downtown courtroom cheered when the judge said Ragbir must be freed, according to the Associated Press. He was released Monday night from the Orange County Correctional Facility in Goshen, N.Y., and plans to continue fighting his deportation, his attorney Alina Das told The Washington Post.

A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Monday night. In a statement to the Associated Press, ICE said it was “concerned with the tone of the district court’s decision, which equates the difficult work ICE professionals do every day to enforce our immigration laws with ‘treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust.'” The agency added it was “actively exploring its appellate options.”

While short on legal analysis, Forrest’s ruling amounted to an unusually stinging rebuke of the administration’s crackdown on immigration, even amid a flurry of other strongly worded judicial opinions regarding President Trump’s immigration policies that have come down in recent months.

Ragbir is the director of the immigrant advocacy group New Sanctuary Coalition in New York, a collection of 150 faith-based organizations. He became a lawful U.S. resident in 1994. In 2000, he was convicted of wire fraud and conspiracy for accepting fraudulent loan applications while working at a mortgage lender.

After serving a prison sentence, he was ordered deported based on his conviction. He spent about two years in detention but was released under supervision in 2008 while his case moved through immigration courts. Over the following decade, he became a prominent voice in New York’s immigrant community, testifying before the city council and once meeting with President Barack Obama’s transition team to discuss immigration policy, according to his attorneys. He married a U.S. citizen in 2010.

During that time, he received work authorization and four stays of removal. The government’s court papers show he checked in regularly with ICE as required.

Eventually, Ragbir’s appeals ran out and he received a final order of deportation. His last stay was valid through Jan. 19, according to court documents. But on Jan. 11, during a check-in with immigration agents, ICE took Ragbir into custody. Ragbir was apparently so shocked by the decision that he lost consciousness and had to be taken to the hospital, court records show.

His attorneys filed a habeas corpus petition the same day in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, arguing his detention was unjustified.

Attorneys for the government said they had obtained travel documents from the Consulate of Trinidad and Tobago at the beginning of the year that were valid through Jan. 14. They argued in court papers that ICE had the final say over Ragbir’s status in the United States because he was already subject to a final removal order.

“Mr. Ragbir has received all the due process he is constitutionally due,” read a brief from the government.

In her ruling Monday, Forrest said there was no question that Ragbir knew he was facing imminent deportation and had been given multiple opportunities to fight his deportation.

“But if due process means anything at all, it means that we must look at the totality of circumstances and determine whether we have dealt fairly when we are depriving a person of the most essential aspects of life, liberty and family,” Forrest said.

It was wrong to “pluck him out of his life without a moment’s notice, remove him from his family and community without a moment’s notice,” she said. “The process that is due here is the allowance that he know and understand that the time has come, that he must organize his affairs, and that he do so by a date certain.”

Since being released from prison, Forrest said, Ragbir had lived the life of a “redeemed man.” She said the government had offered no evidence that he had acted unlawfully, nor any evidence that he would not have left the country on his own accord, as many immigrants in his position are allowed to do.

“Taking such a man, and there are many such men and women like him, and subjecting him to what is rightfully understood as no different or better than penal detention, is certainly cruel,” the judge wrote. “ . . . The Constitution commands better.”

Read the judge’s opinion

This story has been updated. 

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