Judge orders release of activist awaiting deportation

Larry Neumeister and Deepti Hajela
Associated Press

New York – A federal judge, calling an imprisoned immigration rights activists’ treatment “unnecessarily cruel,” ordered his immediate release Monday and said people subject to deportation deserve “the freedom to say goodbye.”

Applause broke out in a packed Manhattan courtroom after U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest announced prominent activist Ravi Ragbir must be released. She also refused a government request to halt the effect of her order until federal prosecutors had time to consider an appeal.

“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.

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

Ragbir, a Brooklyn resident and executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, was detained Jan. 11 when he checked in at an immigration office.

Ragbir’s wife, Amy Gottlieb, said outside the courthouse that she was moved “by the judge’s powerful language about what it means to live in a democracy.”

“It’s been a really hard couple of weeks and I’ve been really disheartened and disillusioned. This restores my faith a little bit in our system,” Gottlieb said.

The citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, a legal U.S. resident since 1994, has been fighting deportation. He was convicted Sept. 12, 2001, of conspiracy and wire fraud for accepting fraudulent loan applications while he worked for a now-defunct loan company. He was first placed into removal proceedings in 2006 and spent nearly two years in detention before his 2008 release. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to give him legal relief in October 2011, and subsequent court efforts have been unsuccessful.

Since then, his lawyers say, he has complied with the terms of his supervision while pursuing legal avenues for relief from removal. He has also become an immigration rights activist while the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has provided him with work authorization and four stays of removal.

After hearing oral arguments, Forrest read aloud a written ruling saying Ragbir and those like him nationwide should be allowed “the freedom to hug one’s spouse and children, the freedom to organize the myriad of human affairs that collect over time.”

“There is, and ought to be in this great country, the freedom to say goodbye,” the judge said.

She said the process was “unnecessarily cruel” to Ragbir and added: Those who are not subjected to such measures must be shocked by it, and find it unusual.”

“That is, that a man we have allowed to live among us for years, to build a family and participate in the life of the community, was detained, handcuffed, forcibly placed on an airplane, and today finds himself in a prison cell,” Forrest said. She said the government did so with no showing or belief that he would not have left on his own if told to do so.

Lawyers for Ragbir contend he was targeted by Scott Mechkowski, deputy field office director at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.

Jeremy Cutting, a legal intern with the Immigrant Rights Clinic, told the judge Mechkowski was upset after witnessing Ragbir’s organization and Ragbir himself protesting outside his office. Cutting said Mechkowski had expressed resentment against Ragbir and his group.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Waterman called Cutting’s claim “pure speculation” and said the government had seen no evidence to support it.

Ragbir has most recently been housed at the Orange County Correctional Facility in Goshen, New York.