Amy Gottlieb is the associate regional director of the Northeast Region of American Friends Service Committee.
This month, my husband, Ravi Ragbir, received a new appointment letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The reason for the appointment, the letter said, is “for removal.”
“For removal,” as if Ravi, a prominent immigrant rights activist and the person I love and have chosen to spend the rest of my life with, were a broken vacuum cleaner set out in the trash with a note for the Department of Sanitation to take him away.
An immigrant from Trinidad, Ravi has lived in the United States for almost 25 years and has faced the threat of deportation since 2006, when his green card was taken away after he completed a sentence for a wire-fraud conviction (which he is challenging in court). Under the Trump administration, the threats of deportation have escalated. In January, he was detained during a routine check-in with ICE and was incarcerated for 18 days in a detention center under threat of immediate deportation. It was only because of massive amounts of community pressure and quick work by his lawyers that he was released. He remains in the United States because of the federal judges who recognize that he should be here with his community as his case continues.
Ravi is my family — loved and respected by so many. But according to ICE — the same agency that faces accusations of abuse, racial profiling and violations of civil rights — he must be removed. Removed from his community and removed from the people he loves.
I have been an immigrant rights attorney for 20 years, but the cold, annihilating language of “removal” chills me now more than ever. The word replaced “deportation” in 1996 as part of a large and ultimately devastating overhaul to our immigration laws signed by President Bill Clinton. The legislation made it both easier to deport people and more difficult for people to adjust their immigration status legally. It created mandatory detention and deportation, and drastically limited the authority of immigration judges to consider a person’s good qualities when deciding a case.
As an immigration lawyer and immigrant rights activist, I have been advocating for the repeal of those laws and have regularly spoken out about their impact on immigrants. In the past, I have refused to use the word “removal.” It has always seemed so flat and distant from what deportation really means: exiling someone from their family and their community.
But once I saw my husband’s appointment letter, the real meaning of “for removal” finally struck me. It stripped Ravi of his humanity, as it has for millions of others living under threat of permanent exile. We don’t remove things we love; we remove things we no longer need or want. We remove garbage. We remove unwanted furniture or things that no longer work. We remove warts, stains, problems. That, apparently, is what Ravi is to this government.
I believe this dehumanizing is essential to a system that allows the government to separate families without repercussion. I believe it’s what allows ICE agents to sleep at night — to ignore the terrified and heartbroken loved ones desperate to keep their families together.
Thanks to an outpouring of community support and pending legal cases, federal courts have prevented ICE from taking Ravi away, and we have tried to maintain a sense of normalcy in our lives. But the specter of losing him hovers over us every day.
As anyone who knows Ravi would agree, my husband is the type of person this country should be welcoming. To do that, we need to abolish the agency that has stripped immigrants of their dignity. And we need to repeal laws that tear apart families and create an immigration system that supports our values of love, respect and community. Because, after all, no one should be treated as if they were disposable.